Thursday, August 27, 2009

cinema obscura: Martin Rosen's "Watership Down" (1978)

Martin Rosen...

Whenever cinéastes invoke the word animation, the name Martin Rosen rarely comes up. You know the drill. Disney, of course. Chuck Jones. Hayao Miyazaki. Frank Tashlin. Ub Iwerks. Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas. The usual suspects. Never Martin Rosen. Who's he, anyway?

Rosen made only three films - one feature, "Stacking" (1987), and prior to that, two extraordinary animations, both based on books of serious animal advocacy by Richard Adams: "Watership Down" in 1978 and "The Plague Dogs" in 1982, a disturbing duet that is even less for children than Miyazaki's works. While Miyazaki films contain elements that might placate children, Rosen's animations sting without compromise.

The extraordinary "Watership Down" follows the journey of a band of rabbits, but we are a long way from Disney's Thumper. Little bunnies. Cute, yes. But in the world documented by Adams, matters are harsh. It's life-and-death as Fiver and Hazel, rabbit siblings, abandon their Sandleford warren to avoid destruction and death as envisioned by Fiver. Their destination: Watership Down. And while their journey is treacherous, "Watership Down" doesn't offer much surcease: Their new home is neighbored by a police state. No, not for children.

Rosen's film of "Watership Down," released by AVCO-Embassy, was a huge critical hit in its time, a distinction helped by the fact that Disney was at an all-time low. The public was accepting but less enthusiastic, not surprisingly.

"Watership Down," about small creatures trying to upset the natural balance in order to live in harmony with it, complements its mythical/realistic storyline with brilliantly colored, richly textured backgrounds and a treasure chest of characters. Rosen reached astonishing new heights here with the animation form.

Four years later, Rosen tried to recreate his success with his adaptation of another bracing Adams book, but "The Plague Dogs," an unapologetic downer about a pair of dogs that escape from an animal-experimentation center and are relentlessly hunted down, was even more grim and was barely released at all by AVCO-Embassy.

Anyone seen it?

Rosen's star vocal talent in both films was John Hurt (an appropriate name, considering the subject matters of this duo), and other notable British actors were also involved: Nigel Hawthorne, Patrick Stewart, Ralph Richardon, Joss Ackland, Denholm Elliott and Harry Andrews.

Serious stuff, indeed.

Note in Passing: Rosen produced Joyce Chopra's very dark "Smooth Talk" in 1985, and was a co-producer on Ken Russell's "Women in Love" (1969). He was also attached to a little-know Eric ("Hot Millions") Till film, 1968's "A Great Big Thing," starring Reni Santoni and Paul Sand.


Moviezzz said...
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Toongirl said...

I was among the few who actually did see 'Plague Dogs' on the big screen when it was briefly released in the States. I was still in grade school and saw the weekend premiere with my father.

The thing I sadly remember most was coming out of that theater and seeing "Plague Dogs" already being taken down for some other film title on the marquee.

It was also the film where a young hopeful named Brad Bird learned that you just can't do depressing films in animation and expect financial success.

If only Rosen followed the ending of Adams book, which actually ends happily. Then the film may have fared better.

joe baltake said...


"The Plague Dogs" was made with much anticipation because of the success of "Watership Down." AVCO was initially behind it - to the point of creating really troubling poster art for it. The company never tried to hide what it was about. Unfortunately, it elected to hide the film itself.


May I borrow your copy?

Larry said...

Plague Dogs is widely available online. Search for it on youtube.

Its a sad film, but not a bad film. Well worth watching.

The real mystery is Martin Rosen's other film, 'Stacking'. It was nominated for Grand Jury Prize at the 1986 Sundance Film Festival and then disappeared into total obscurity. The rumors are that the film is very good, but we never know for sure.