Ugly ‘Watership Down’ Netflix Trailer Reveals Limitations 1978 Original Doesn’t Have

With a cast that includes John Boyega, Tom Wilkinson, Nicholas Hoult, Gemma Arterton, Daniel Kaluuya, Ben Kingsley, James McAvoy, Olivia Colman and Rosamund Pike (as the Black Rabbit of Inlé!) it was easy to have high hopes for the joint BBC/Netflix adaptation of the Richard Adams novel Watership Down. Then came the first trailer, released Tuesday. There’s simply no way around it: this Watership Down looks hideous, with CGI situated somewhere between those algorithmically generated videos traumatizing kids on YouTube and circa-2009 video game cutscenes. But even more than ugly, the new, computer-animated Watership Down looks to have another problem: an inability to visually depict subjectivity.

In 3D animation, characters models are built and puppeteered. The 3D models, each an independent, polygonal widget, is only mutable with specific effort. This is the opposite of traditional animation, where a character’s consistency between frames can often be harder to capture. With 3D models for each character, the possibilities for expressive subjectivity are severely limited. So while it may be possible to computer animate something like the endlessly morphing, squishing, transforming man of Bill Plympton’s Your Face, that mutability isn’t intrinsic to the 3D animation medium.

The very first shot of the trailer reveals just what this might mean for the upcoming Watership Down. We open on Fiver (Hoult), a runty rabbit who experiences vivid and traumatizing visions of dangers to come. He is exploring a collapsing warren, seemingly frozen in time, a terrifying vision which will inspire a small group of believers, lead by Hazel (McAvoy), to abandon their home and search out a new, safer place to live. This vision is depicted in such a way as to imply the subjectivity of dreams, mainly by adding some sort of blurry filter.

Contrast these first shots with the 1978 version of Watership Down and the self-imposed storytelling limitations are immediately obvious. In one particularly grisly scene, the rabbit Holly describes what happened after Fiver and Hazel left their original warren.

Some of the imagery is similar, particularly dirt collapsing into the burrow holes, but it’s hard to imagine, based on the new trailer, 2018’s Watership Down capturing a fraction of the nightmarish power of the subjective perspective encouraged by traditional animation, which stretches its characters into shocking shapes.

watership-down-original-painting Good luck duplicating a frame like this in the 2018 "Watership Down." Embassy Pictures

It will be interesting see how the new Watership Down approaches its psychic visions, flashbacks and fables (the rabbits take comfort in stories about their trickster god, El-ahrairah, animated, in the 1978 version, with bold colors and petroglyphic shapes). But this trailer doesn’t offer much hope that we’ll see the type of stylistic experimentation that can best depict the mythological and dream-bound lives of its characters.

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