Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Criterion Collection - WATERSHIP DOWN ""

Friday, March 6, 2015

Criterion Collection - WATERSHIP DOWN

WATERSHIP DOWN (1978; Martin Rosen)
When I was just a kid I remember seeing THE SECRET OF NIMH for the first time. It really stuck with me. I think it kind of turned my head around because I was used to juvenile and silly cartoons so they informed my idea of what animation was supposed to be. NIMH was a paradigm shifter in that it portrayed a dark, depressing and scary world that had nothing to do with the Wile E. Coyote (Genius) or The Roadrunner. It showed me that animation could be used to tell fantastic and poignant stories as well as farcical antics. But NIMH would only function as the trainjng wheels for much more sophisticated animated fare like WATERSHIP DOWN and Bakshi's WIZARDS. These allegorical tales would give me a whole new appreciation for the genre. WATERSHIP DOWN has a rather disturbing scene within the first 10 minutes if its runtime. One of the rabbits has a premonition, a hallucination of carnage that rivals the one that Sarah Connor has in TERMINATOR 2 (a little less graphic but nonetheless). A scene like that really let's you know the kind of film you are watching and it sets the rather bleak tone very early on. WATERSHIP also reveals itself to be a more than probable influence on THE SECRET OF NIMH near the beginning when the two main rabbits pay a visit to "The Chief Rabbit". The Chief Rabbit recalls the Great Owl from NIMH in a big way (they both even live in trees). While NIMH attempts to show a hierarchical structure developed by the rats, WATERSHIP DOWN's rabbit societal construction is a bit more complex. Interestingly, while it is more complex, it is also a great deal more barbaric. In fact, there's quite a bit of blood depicted in the movie as a whole. And as sad and dark as NIMH gets in spots, it can't compare to WATERSHIP DOWN. There is a profound sense of melancholy about the story and it is truly affecting to watch. There is just his sense of fatalism about the whole thing. But it isn't doom in the same sense as a film noir, it's much more transcendent. Part of the film's effectiveness comes from the way it uses the medium of animation to be expressionistic and often veering into some dark places via that expressionism. Those images (mostly of death or impending death) are quite haunting and really linger. While such things could be attempted in a live-action format, it just wouldn't be the same. So the movie is already quite powerful in what it pulls off and the ending is made all the more affecting by the song "Bright Eyes" (which is sungai an angelic fashion by the great Art Garfunkel). WATERSHIP DOWN often gets mentioned in the same sentence as THE PLAGUE DOGS (the story of some escaped lab dogs). As downbeat as WATERSHIP can be, it's almost lighthearted in comparison to THE PLAGUE DOGS (which has maybe the toughest opening scene to get through of any animated movie I can think of). Both are pretty heavy (see also: sad) as animated movies go, but that makes them all the more memorable and resonant.
 Though I had seen WATERSHIP DOWN many years ago, it was quite an experience to watch it again where I am with my life now. I couldn't shake thoughts of the film for days after watching it. I know that a lot of people say things like this, but it doesn't happen all that often to me lately. I watch too many movies these days so my brain doesn't tend to dwell on them for too long once I've watched them (for the most part). This was different though. Maybe as I near middle age, I have become much more sensitive to anything that is a meditation on mortality. It truly is one of the great animated films ever made and that can't be understated. Thankfully this Criterion disc looks excellent and will not be a disappointment to fans.

Special Features:
This Criterion Collection disc has a number of nice supplements:
-"Guillermo del Toro On WATERSHIP DOWN" - This new 12 minute interview with del Toro is as wonderful and insightful as you would hope it would be. I am always inspired and transfixed by the way he is able to articulate his thoughts on the films he loves. Like Quentin Tarantino and Edgar Wright, Guillermo is one of the great "passionate film talkers" out there and he is a pleasure to listen to. In this interview he discusses seeing WATERSHIP DOWN for the first time when he was young and how it affected him and changed his view of animation in general. Intelligent and fascinating stuff. See the clip below:

-"Passion Project: Martin Rosen on WATERSHIP DOWN" - This new 17 minute interview with director Rosen is quite enlightening. He talks about being a literary agent and coming across the book and being absolutely floor by it. Apparently he was so moved that he decided he wanted to do something with it, despite having no experience in animation at all (and not realizing the difficulty of this material). So in the interview he goes on to discusses the trials and tribulations of constructing and designing the film, finding the right people to work on it and figuring out the process by which an animated movie like this is made (and can be improved). I always think it's neat to hear stories of filmmakers undertaking something as challenging as this and finding a way to get it done and done well.

-"Defining a Style" -  This 12 minute featurette is from 2005 and contains interviews with some of the films main animators and background artists. It's a neat detailing of some of the processes behind the scenes on an animated film such as this. Though we've all seen some of these processes outlined on occasion, this short featurette is quite interesting and informative. Actor Joss Acklund was interviewed for this as well.
-This disc is also equipped with a storyboard mode (which you can turn on and off in the features menu) wherein you can see the animation team's storyboards and concept art pop on screen while you watch each scene.

This Criterion Collection disc can be found at Criterion's website as well as other retailers.

1 comment:

Brittani Burnham said...

Great write up! NIMH is one of my favorite animated movies hands down. I remember liking Watership Down as a kid, then I watched it again as an adult and was kind of shocked how dark it really was. No wonder none of my friends had seen it when they were kids.