Sunday, January 8, 2017

WATERSHIP DOWN

    We have come a ways from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first animated movie I ever saw in a cinema. That was in the summer of 1967, thirty years after its original release. The studios heralded Snow White as a Walt Disney story, but of course that was a lie, as anyone familiar with the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm will attest. The true origins of the story actually go back beyond the Brothers Grimm to sixteenth century Germany where Philip IV fathered Margarete von Waldeck who, upon her maturity, fell in love with a prince who would go on to become Phillip II of Spain. Margarete's parents disapproved of the relationship and either banished her or poisoned her, much to the horror of the children (dwarfs) the family held as slave laborers. Kind of puts a different spin on the old "Whistle While You Work" motif, doesn't it?
   The Wicked Queen in that movie proved to be the image of nightmares for a few weeks, somewhat on a par with the Wicked Witches in The Wizard of Oz. The first time I watched those flying monkeys tear apart the Scarecrow, I thought I was going to faint.
   Both of those films are thought to be kid movies which are commonly enjoyed by adults as well, although the pleasure grown-ups get from such things may have something to do with nostalgia for their own presumed innocent days of youth.
   The 1978 animated movie Watership Down maintains its appeal to this very day and that appeal has nothing much to do with nostalgia since I only saw it for the first time earlier this evening and must confess to having been quite engrossed. 
   Whenever I watch a so-called feature-length cartoon, I take a moment to consider if I would have enjoyed the movie as a child. I believe that I would. I am certain that I liked it as a more or less grown person. And even though a few scenes display some violence and horror, the very nature of the construct of that horror is not in the least gratuitous and I believe would not much disturb any child who ever lost a goldfish to the perils of the toilet bowl.
   The story is about a warren of rabbits who escape from the progress of mankind. In the Martin Rosen film, as in the Richard Adams book, the rabbits talk. But these rabbits are not much like Bugs Bunny. Mankind, for that matter, is not much like Elmer Fudd. The thoroughly naturalistic animation catches details that any child would recognize, such as the way a rabbit's soul appears to be conveyed by its eyes, the way a rabbit sniffs and chews, the movements as they scurry hither and yon. All the details are perfect and not a bit boastful. Mankind's encroachment is only the beginning of the problems for our rabbits, however. It seems their social systems have a few authoritarian elements as well as a share of cosmic-inclined characters who can foresee disaster. 
   The real menace for our adventure-seeking harmony-loving rabbits is a big old bastard of a rabbit named General Woundwort who rules by inflicting scars on his people. His brutality is complete and as irrational as that of any Wicked Queen. Woundwort is also the ultimate foil and without his cruelty there would be much less of a story to tell. The movie also delivers a sinister pussy cat who is just as evil, though not as sophisticated, as Woundwort. Both are sufficiently frightening.
   Even if a person were to murmur some objections to the rotten behavior of the bad actors in this movie, I would counter that the splendor of the film's resolution is enhanced by all that comes before it and that without the violence, that resolution would be fey and dismissed by any kid in attendance, much less by his or her parental guardian. 
   This issue of violence strikes me as important because it seems that the BBC and Netflix are about to release a four-part mini-series remake of the original for sometime this year, but have decided to tame down the tension for fear of scarring the children who might watch it. 
   We are not talking about some sick, twisted garbage movie here. This is not I Spit on Your Grave or Friday 13th or even Caligula. This is an actual movie with believable characters about whom we come to care a great deal in a brief period of time and when something bad happens to one of them, we feel it, just as we do in real life, despite the efforts of sensationalists to desensitize us. Watership Down is a movie that aims to sensitize us to our place in this mad universe, to connect us with our fellows, to breathe life into each precious moment and in order to do that in a way that is honest and sincere, a few rabbits do indeed get hurt. But as Frith the Creator tells us, "There is not a day or night that a doe offers her life for her kittens, or some honest captain of Owsla, his life for his chief. But there is no bargain: what is, is what must be." Frith has a lot of interesting things to say, including, "All the world will be your enemy, Prince of a Thousand enemies. And when they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you; digger, listener, runner, Prince with the swift warning. Be cunning, and full of tricks, and your people will never be destroyed." 
    I'm sure it is too late to get the BBC and Netflix to reconsider their "sanitizing" of the story. I have not seen previews of the work, but I suspect they may stray from the naturalist appearance of the original and go for a "real" look instead, the difference between natural and real being, say, the difference between Finding Nemo and Finding Dory. Real is seldom an improvement. 

   

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