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Feature


At the onset of WWI an English farmer named Ted Narracott (Peter Mullen) brings home a feisty colt, which is named Joey and loved by his son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine). Joey and Albert are soon forced apart when the turnip crop is destroyed, and Ted is forced to sell Joey to the war effort. From here, Joey takes an extraordinary journey, changing and inspiring the lives of everyone he meets on both sides of the battle. No matter where they go or what they experience, both Albert and Joey keep forging ahead, driven by devotion and the hope of returning home.

War Horse
Based on the trailers and word of mouth, War Horse sees Steven Spielberg getting back to a place of comfort following an experimental, first time animation experience ( The Adventures of Tintin), a half-assed favour to a friend ( Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), and a mature, adult oriented attempt at pseudo-reinvention ( Munich). The Beard is back to familiar, popular, and award winning territory with period settings, war, and adorable creatures with a vast array of human emotions. War Horse is based on a popular book and play, but doesn’t carry the same predisposition for ‘prestige’ that Spielberg’s other big war films have, ie: Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List, which I feel leaves the director a chance to have more fun with the subject matter. The PG-13 rating gives us a solid clue as to the director’s intensions as well. At best War Horse should be a bridge between the director’s best heavy-minded Oscar bait, and lighter hearted, emotional string pulling ‘80s work. That said, Steve certainly isn’t sleepwalking through or half-assing this particular production (cough cough Crystal Skull cough).

First and obvious things first, War Horse is an achingly gorgeous film. Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski go for beauty, grandeur, and scope with just about every shot here, making War Horse a sort of anti- Adventures Tintin. Tintin reveled full-force in the possibilities of virtual cameras and digital characters, and War Horse gracefully captures every ounce of traditional, non-enhanced photographic beauty in the tradition of David Lean and John Ford. Even viewers that are overwhelmed with hatred for the film’s occasionally childish tone will likely adore this photography. The battle sequences, which don’t start until about the one hour mark, are properly spectacular, and another definitive highlight. There are at least a dozen images in both the preparation and execution of battle that easily sit among the director’s most brain-searing and indelible, especially during that initial and ill-fated horse charge, which is reason alone enough to watch the nearly two and a half hour long film. Pains are taken to capture the ambiguous tone of WWI, where everyone had the capacity to be a hero or villain, unlike WWII, where the Nazis make easy target bad guys due to the whole first strike and mass-eradication of a race of people thing.

War Horse
I have some pretty big problems with the screenplay, which is incredibly simplistic and predictable. Villains conspire just because they’re villains, only to be thwarted when our hero horse defies the odds. But before anyone can celebrate too much, fate intervenes and the horse has to overcome more adversity. Rinse. Repeat. Hopefully the audience cries a bit during the higher emotional hills, etcetera. There are some pretty obvious ways Spielberg could’ve worked this script to his advantage. First off, he needs to decide if he’s making a children’s film, or a genuine, adult look at the first World War. I’d like to say the mix of elements works, but generally speaking this feels like two totally different films, and the serious war violence (despite being very well constructed) constantly shocked me out of my sense of disbelief, and made all the anthropomorphic horse stuff look kind of silly. There’s also little reason for the film to be quite this long, despite the epic expanse of the story, and the use of multiple characters. The early scenes on the farm weigh the film down up front. Here, Spielberg calls upon his best boy and his dog (horse) skills, and sets the early, somewhat extraneous first act up with a mix of charming comedy and eye-rolling sentimentality. None of the critters here talk, but tonally Spielberg borrows a lot from Chris Noonan and George Miller’s Babe. There’s still plenty of cheap histrionic twaddle (my friend called it ‘creepy, co-dependent beastiality romance’), but a lot of it works, and there are some unexpectedly quirky laughs peppered throughout. The Narracott farm’s goose is a constant lark, though the alchemy of the Babe formula generally eludes the director. Things smooth over quite a bit as the third act rolls around, and Spielberg finds a proper balance between sap and war horror. Things even build to an incredibly touching crescendo that is so convoluted it should sink the entire film, but Spielberg spins his insane magic, and pulls it off. There’s just so much unnecessary set-up on the road to this all too brief genuine magic.

The human characters are all a bit too traditional, and thus their emotions and arcs are a bit difficult to parse with any sense of realism, but Spielberg has to build a bit of early cartoon perspective to ensure we’re treating Joey like a proper character. The unique and central idea of experiencing the war through Joey’s varied human counterparts is certainly intact, but they never garner the same tender swells the horses do. Spielberg and the trainers deserve huge praise for humanizing these creatures so effectively, but it’s sad that it’s at the expense of the bipedal characters. Again, it comes down to balance, and there’s a sense that the least rounded humans are actually the most vividly realized and affecting. I was more touched by the relatively brief vignettes featuring the war-deserting German brothers and the horse-loving German private than I was by the more substantial scenes of little Emilie and her grandfather, or even the reuniting of Joey with Albert. Perhaps even more emphasis should’ve been placed on the horse’s side of the story.

War Horse

Video


Steven Spielberg has gone on record stating his affection for standard 35mm film time and time again, and despite the all digital influence of The Adventures of Tintin[I] he’s back to his old tricks for [I]War Horse, which was shot on 35mm, using mostly Arriflex cameras. Spielberg also continues his long running collaboration with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, and they make the right choice by framing the film in a nice, wide 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The bulk of the film is coded in either rich warm daytime vistas, or dreary, blue, rain soaked fogginess. You know, the usual image of Britain, no mater what era we’re talking about. The darker scenes reveal a bit more detail and texture, but the warm skin tones, green fields, and golden skies – it’s apparently always sunrise or sunset in this universe – are all quite clean, and feature brilliant gradation shifts. The perpetual sunrise/set thing keeps contrast levels harsh, and black levels deep during even the brightest scenes, with only a hint of edge enhancement over the hardest edges. Grain levels are quite fine, almost non-existent at times, and compression artifacts are minimal, even on the occasional poppy red highlight. Kaminski fills out the frame like Sergio Leone, juxtaposing deep-set vistas with extreme facial close-ups, allowing for dynamic detail extremes throughout. The realistic, cinema verite war sequences occasionally feature a jarring degree of smoke and smeared, foggy details, but even here everything remains smooth without blocking.

War Horse

Audio


Spielberg’s usual audio design partner Gary Rydstrom is up to his usual magic with War Horse, and this DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 captures every ounce of dynamic noise. Early on, the mix sets itself apart with a montage of Albert playing hide and seek with Joey, calling him from the stereo and surround channels with a bird call. From here the basic ins and outs of natural ambience fill things out with lots of rain, thunder, wind, and general farm sounds. The war sequences are an eclectic mix of thundering horse hooves, grinding vehicular gears, exploding artillery, clanging metal, and gunfire. Everything moves briskly throughout the channels, in the appropriate direction, and with heavy LFE impact. During the trench warfare sequences Rydstrom calls upon all his Saving Private Ryan lessons learned and creates a soundscape nearly as shell-shocking, and every bit as loud. Composer John Williams did double duty for Spielberg this year after a three year break from film music, creating the whimsical, jazz-infused score that helped set the tone for The Adventures of Tintin, and this more traditional score helps establish a bouncier tone earlier in the film, while sweeping things along more triumphantly later on. However, Williams might want to look into the possibility of suing himself for plagiarism at this point, because he’s ‘quoting’ himself a lot here. The main title them is also awfully close to one of the songs from the Zelda: Ocarina of Time videogame soundtrack…

War Horse

Extras


There is a sizable collection of extras in this two Blu-ray collection, starting on disc one with War Horse: The Journey Home (19:40, HD), a roundtable discussion featuring Spielberg, producer Kathleen Kennedy, and actors Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Tom Hiddleston and Tony Kebbell. Here, the participants somewhat fluffily talk up the themes and structure of the film, and, to a better effect, some of the behind the scenes anecdotes, mostly concerning the horse actors. Then cinematographer  J a n u s z Kaminski, production designer Rick Carter, costume designer Johanna Johnston, screenwriter Lee Hall and editor Mike Kahn are brought in to discuss some of the technical aspects with Spielberg and Kennedy. The first disc also features An Extra’s Point of View (3:10, HD), a brief look at ‘background artist’ Martin Lew’s time on the giant production.

Disc two starts with A Filmmaking Journey (64:10, HD), a behind the scenes documentary featuring interviews with Spielberg, Kennedy, Kaminski, Carter, Kahn, novelist Michael Morpurgo, screenwriter Richard Curtis, producer Revel Guest, horse make-up artist Alexandra Bannister and Charlotte Rogers, horse trainer Bobby Lovgren, Human Society rep Barbara Carr, costume designer Johanna Johnston and consultant David Crossman, stunt coordinator Rob Inch, special effects supervisor Neil Corbould, master armor Simon Arherton, military advisor Andrew Robertshaw, cast members Jeremy Irvine, David Thewlis, Peter Mullen, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Patrick Kennedy, David Kross, Celine Buckens, Niels Arestrup, Robert Emms, and Toby Kebbell. It covers the film’s historical context, the writing of the original novel, the location shooting, characters, casting, horse decoration and training, production design, pre-viz, actor boot camp, props and machinery, and includes plenty of behind the scenes footage, pre-viz footage, and production artwork.

The disc is completed with Editing and Scoring (8:50, HD), which features Spielberg, Kahn and composer John Williams discussing the, um, editing and scoring of the film, The Sounds of War Horse (7:10, HD), which features sound designer Gary Rydstrom discussing his contributions, and Through the Producer’s Lens (4:00, HD), which features Kathleen Kennedy discussing the photos she took on set (complete with the photos themselves). I’m disappointed by the lack of footage from the popular play that predated the film. I’m also disappointed that none of the extras featured Dethklok’s immortal metal classic, ‘Thunderhorse’.

War Horse

Overall


I really, really wanted to love War Horse based on my affection for Steven Spielberg’s films and the unique concept, but I’m left merely loving parts of it. With a solid 30 minutes edited out of the mix and a more consistent tone, I think it could’ve been a genuine classic. Of Spielberg’s two 2011 films The Adventures of Tintin may have been the better best picture nomination option. This disc looks and sounds glourious though, and the looks and sounds are the definitively great pieces of the troubled film. Extras aren’t quite as plentiful as the box art might promise, but cover most of the bases, and are generally satisfying.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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