“My mother said I’m too romantic. She said I’m dancing in the movies,” sings Sam Smith in the theme tune for the BBC’s new adaptation of Watership Down. Clearly, he’s not talking about Martin Rosen’s 1978 original animation, because that’s as far from romance as movies get. That film disturbed a whole generation with its graphic depiction of rabbit injuries, torture and deaths, painting a cruel world of bleak mortality for kiddies unprepared for such harsh life lessons, particularly ones portrayed in such crude bloodiness. The thought of a new take on Richard Adams’ seminal novel, then, isn’t exactly one to savour – but this BBC One and Netflix co-production plays things not exactly romantic, but certainly much more toned down.
The four-part series, airing this weekend as a two feature-length chapters, charts the journey of a group of rabbits, as they flee the destruction of their warren and try to find a new home. Hazel (James McAvoy) is the de facto leader of the band, who believes the apocalyptic visions of Fiver (Nicholas Hoult) enough to take a small gang away from the apparent safety of Sandleford and into the wild.
It’s a place of predators, pernicious weather and prowling enemies, but also, and this is where the series really works, of perpetual hope – hope of sanctuary and friendship. There’s an unwavering trust in the way that Hazel doesn’t dismiss Fiver’s dreams, as well as the dependable support of Bigwig (John Boyega), the heavyweight rabbit who joins the Hazel’s crew. This tightly knit ensemble encounter of variety of other colonies, each of whom have taken a different tactic to both survive and adapt to their surroundings; there’s the softer stance of Cowslip (the always-excellent Rory Kinnear) and the tough cruelty of General Woundwort (Ben Kingsley), who oversees the warren of Efrafan, both of which carry their own dangers and compromises. And, in between these extremes are a litany of dogs, cats, farmers, shotguns, cars and more.
Matters are complicated by the fact that the warren needs a doe in order to survive – a not-exactly-feminist social trait that’s balanced out by the strengthening of the female cast, most notably by gender-switching Strawberry (voiced with earnest charisma by Olivia Colman) and by beefing up the role of Clover (Gemma Arterton), a rabbit raised in a hutch. The result is a tale of capture and imprisonment as much as a push for liberty, and the four-part pacing settles into a compelling and satisfying cycle of peril and escape, fight and flight. The segments are titled The Journey, The Raid, The Escape, and The Siege; freed from the restricted runtime of the 1970s film, Tom Bidwell’s elegant script rolls like the English countryside from one pleasure to the next.
It’s a slight shame, then, that while the gorgeously captured rural backdrops aren’t always matched by the rabbits themselves. The animation of the animals is far from Pixar-level expectations, and, while it’s perhaps more a question of stylisation than quality, it does distract occasionally, especially after the beautifully rendered shadow-puppet-style introduction that outlines Adams’ leporine mythology.
If there’s a risk of the figures becoming interchangeable at times, though, there’s little risk of it as the story goes on, thanks to the superb voice cast. McAvoy and Hoult bring real emotional clout to their roles, while others such as Mackenzie Crook (as the doting Hawkbit) and Daniel Kaluuya (as the mischievous Bluebell) offer a welcome comic relief. Even with Rosamund Pike’s formidable turn as the Black Rabbit of Inle, a figure who represents death, this world captures moments of happiness and character amid the fear and excitement (director Noam Murro clearly knows how to frame a nail-biting action sequence). Peter Capaldi, in particular, shines as Kehaar, a winged ally who is at once helpful and amusingly lazy.
The result runs like the clappers, but while this can be, on the surface, a tale of rabbits, the theme of environmental concern and man’s treatment of animals emerges as the strongest hook. “Men won’t rest until they have spoiled the Earth and destroyed the animals,” notes Clover halfway through. It’s a lament that rings true beyond the edge of these furry frames, and reinforces the tragedy of the deaths that do occur. Is this all-new Watership Down more romantic? Yes – those traumatised before need not be afraid of fresh nightmares – although it’s still too dark (and complex) for younger viewers, particularly in the final two chapters. Nonetheless, this nicely judged adaptation manages to find light as well as shade in the pages of Adams’ novel, and nuance behind the frank discussions of adult topics. The only misstep is that theme tune.
Watership Down is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.99 monthly subscription.