Saturday, December 12, 2015

Winter on Watership Down, Parts 1 and 2 (2000)

We live in a strange world. It turns out there was a Watership Down animated series that ran for thirty-nine episodes between 1999 and 2001, including a two-part Christmas episode.

First, some background. The novel, Watership Down, is a seminal work of epic fantasy starring rabbits in the British countryside. If you're unfamiliar with the story, you may think the premise sounds humorous, but it's a tale of prophecy, war, death, and legend. The book functions as a meditation on mythology, exploring how the rabbits' society is built on the tales it tells. Without it, it's unlikely we ever would have gotten Redwall, Mouse Guard, or numerous other fantasy stories about animals at war.

Watership Down was adapted into an animated movie in 1978. This one goes on a list with Secret of NIMH and The Last Unicorn of animated features that traumatized kids in the 70's and 80's. The Watership Down movie didn't pull many punches: rabbits literally tore each other's throats open in that movie.

Based on a quick look at Wikipedia, it looks like the animated series was simultaneously a remake and an homage to the '78 movie. The designs, music, and approach were clearly based on the movie's, though the first season seems to have retold the same basic story, albeit without the same level of graphic violence.

"Winter on Watership Down," sometimes titled "Christmas on Watership Down," occurred halfway through the second season. It was a two-part episode centered around a holiday called the "Feast of Frith" which naturally occurred the same time as Christmas (naturally because, as the rabbits made clear, it also marked the winter solstice).

They've invited a large number of other herbivores into the warren to celebrate, but their food supplies are nowhere near sufficient. The main characters (the same basic group from the book) set out to look for more. But before they could find anything, they run into a fox, who chases them across a frozen river. They scare off the fox with the help of Kehaar, their gull friend, but not before Bigwig falls through the ice.

With the fox still on their tails, they make their way into a hedge maze, where they come across another warren. Despite being near humans, they enter, realizing Bigwig won't survive in the cold. Eventually, there is a brief fight, as the rabbits of Watership Down refuse to trust rabbits who'd accept food from humans. This transitions into another chase sequence when the fox catches up with them. They manage to scare it off again by leading it to a Christmas celebration in the center of the hedge maze, though - it turns out the fox is even more scared of humans than the rabbits are.

At the end, the main characters all learn a valuable lesson: that not all humans are bad and not all animals living beside them should be shunned.

I'm a little torn on this one. On one hand, the episode's tone was that of a tense survival thriller. It was suspenseful and dark, despite refusing to draw blood. In addition, the background music was beautifully composed and edited into the piece.

On the other, the ending felt childish, simplistic, and out of tone with the source material. Sure, mankind destroys their original warren, traps them for sport and food, and breeds predators that hunt the rabbits... but some people are nice and give them food. #NotAllHumans

I'm calling bullshit. While there's room for naturalism in the book, the worlds of humans and rabbits don't coexist in a meaningful way in the novel, nor are they supposed to. Our species are not characters present to interact with them: we're an alien life form more akin to a Lovecraftian horror than something they just need to understand. The resolution here felt like a cheat.

But, other than that, it wasn't bad. The style honored the source material, and the tone was refreshingly somber for an animated series. In addition, the holiday elements - both pertaining to the rabbit's mythology and the connection to the solar cycle - were well integrated and thought out.

If it weren't for that ending, I'd be recommending this. Even with it, it's pretty solid entertainment.

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