Walk on, Chief Justice Michael Stailey! Walk on!
Our review of War Horse (Blu-ray), published April 23rd, 2012, is also available.
Separated by war. Tested by battle. Bound by friendship.
When walking into a Steven Spielberg film, one often wonders which version of this legendary director we'll see on the screen. It could be the boundary pushing action/adventure Spielberg who gave us Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Jurassic Park; the thinking man's Spielberg of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Color Purple, and Amistad; the conventional family man Spielberg of Hook, Catch Me If You Can, and The Adventures of Tintin; or the deeply personal Spielberg who laid bare such projects as Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, and Munich. Whichever Steven is present, it's guaranteed the product will be quality entertainment. Whether or not the film meets the tastes and expectations of a given audience is purely subjective. Such is the case with War Horse.
Facts of the Case
In the rural English county of Devon, young Albie Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) is awestruck by the miracle of animal husbandry and watches with great interest as this foaling grows into a colt. When brought to market by its owner, Albert's father Ted (Peter Mullan) engages in a alcohol-fueled bidding war with his landlord Mr. Lyons (David Thewlis) for the spirited creature. Unfortunately, more thoroughbred than workhorse, the Narracotts must find a way to use the horse—now named Joey—to make their rent payment or lose the farm. Optimistically undeterred and deeply bonded, Albie and Joey do everything in their power to save the family homestead, but the fates are unkind. Sold to the British cavalry on the eve of World War I, Joey is sent into battle, where he faces unbelievable odds and becomes inspiration to all manner of creatures great and small.
I've long had a cinematic blind spot, when it comes to movies about horses—Black Beauty, National Velvet, The Black Stallion, Seabiscuit. I really couldn't care less. So when the buzz about War Horse began, my brain simply tuned out. I was well-aware of its origins; Michael Morpurgo's children's story begin transformed into a phenomenal West End stage play, subsequently wowing Broadway audiences in NYC, and later being optioned by Spielberg for the big screen. Even when the awards season screener arrived, it quickly wound up at the bottom of the pile. I'd get to it, after I'd watched everything else. Never happened.
So here we are. Two and a half hours of Janusz Kaminski's sweeping visuals overlaying John Williams lush musical landscape, populated by characters familiar to audiences of Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) and Richard Curtis' (Love Actually) films. War Horse is less a Spielberg film and more of him guiding the adaptation of a uniquely British treasure; his well-oiled production team (producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, editor Michael Kahn, production designer Rick Carter, costumer Joanna Johnston) tapping the best and brightest British film industry artisans (many deeply involved with the Harry Potter franchise) to bring this story to life.
You certainly can't argue with the results. The historical setting, a deliberate pace, and long stretches of life unfolding before our eyes makes for a truly unique experience; almost as if traversing The National Gallery were a fully immersive three-dimensional journey. From the perpetual dawn and dusk settings of England's south country, to the grim visage of the northern French battlefields, we are absorbing pure artistry.
Those expecting a revelatory experience will be disappointed. This is not Spielberg at his most creative or compelling. War Horse is a visually stunning film, more style than substance. The performances are window dressing, momentarily touching and just as quickly forgotten. The only emotional investment we have is with Joey and even that feels somewhat manipulative in retrospect. These horses are doing exactly what's asked of them, without any layering of Meisner or Stanislavski techniques.
What little there is to the plot is quite familiar territory, Joey profoundly touching the lives of everyone he meets. Each of these vignettes are self-contained, tugging at the heart strings and carrying us along from the beginning to the end of "The Great War." Unlike Saving Private Ryan or the Spielberg produced The Pacific, the war serves as merely a backdrop. It does not involve us in the politics or the military tactics. We experience the horrors of trench warfare, the raping of the French countryside, and the depravity of the human soul under such conditions, but only through the eyes of this miraculous horse. And like nearly all classic Hollywood animal pictures (save for something like Old Yeller), we know exactly how the story will end—happily.
Presented in epic standard definition 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen, War Horse deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible. The frame is so large, with so much to take in, it may deserve a second viewing just to let your eyes explore the corners. Painted by some of Hollywood's finest craftsmen, the color correction gives the film a hyper-reality unlike anything we've seen from this particular time period. The night scenes are equally impressive with deep blacks and exceptional lighting that illuminates only what needs to be seen. Given the impressiveness of this transfer, I can only imagine how awe-inspiring it looks in 1080p HD. Pixar's Gary Rydstrom handles the audio design and this Dolby 5.1 Surround track is enveloping. Between Williams' score and the ambient environment, we are placed firmly in the midst of this entire adventure. Unlike some British films, subtitles aren't a necessity here, but offered up just the same.
If you are purchasing the DVD release, just realize the only bonus feature is a 7-minute EPK-style puff piece—War Horse: The Look—on how Spielberg and company created the look and feel for the film. The two-disc DVD package and four-disc Blu-ray combo pack present a feature-length documentary and several smaller featurettes, but no commentary from Steven Spielberg, who has yet to record one for any of his films.
Artistically impressive but contextually lacking, War Horse plays extremely well to audiences who appreciate a more esoteric film experience. Devotees of big budget Hollywood popcorn event movies and Spielberg's more traditional storytelling are likely to find this one tedious. Either way, credit the artisans involved for creating a spectacular slice of cinema.
The jury is deadlocked.
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