The story of a horse and his boy set during the chaos of WWI.
Here’s what I wrote about this film in December of 2011:
“If any movie released in 2011 screams, “Oscar Bait!,” louder than Steve Spielberg’s War Horse than I haven’t seen it. The esteemed director of Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List and Jaws has crafted a motion picture that feels entirely manufactured. There is little organic about this adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's novel, few scenes that ring with emotional authenticity, the final product nothing more than a beautifully photographed children’s story playing upon the basest fantasies of human-animal relationships.
Not that there isn’t anything wrong with that, per se, and in all fairness there are a number of moments in this WWI boy and his horse adventure that strummed my heartstrings and maybe me look upon the screen in weepy splendor. Even more, there are even a handful of scenes where Spielberg and writers Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) and Richard Curtis (Love Actually) achieve a melancholic splendor bordering on miraculous, the film partially trotting into Au Hasard Balthazar territory channeling vintage Robert Bresson.
Sadly, they’re just aren’t enough of these types of moments and sequences to warrant spending 140-plus minutes with this overly familiar opus. The vignettes are better, stronger and more interesting than the central narrative is, and whenever the picture focuses upon young Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) pining for his lost horse Joey, taken by the British Army into the heart of the war against Germany, it becomes something of a saccharine bore. Everything involved with that tale, the early portions on the boy’s farm, the stuff with his mother Rose (Emily Watson) and father Ted (Peter Mullan), the penultimate moments in France, is sentimentalized cliché, all emotional drumbeats hammered home with a thundering hand that is as heavy as it is obnoxious.
Yet, the stuff where Joey breaks free, the moments where he comes into contact with a pair of German brothers who have deserted the Army, the scenes where he spends a sublime respite with a young French girl and her loving grandfather (an excellent Niels Arestrup), all have a delicately rapturous quality that hints to everything the movie could potentially be but frustratingly isn’t. Even better are the sequences where Spielberg allows the story to be seen entirely through Joey’s eyes, lets him take center stage in a way that puts the viewer into the animal’s headspace. These are extraordinary vignettes, each one showing the talented auteur at his best, making the routine rote familiarity of all the rest even more disappointing.
It’s hard to talk about many of these points in the film that I adore because to do so would potentially ruin them. At the same time, to not speak of them in detail makes it sound like the motion picture as a whole is something akin to an utter disaster. It is not, far from it if I’m being honest, and to say I disliked War Horse wouldn’t be true at all. My problem is that the strengths of the picture don’t only not outweigh the weaknesses, they actually augment them. The places where Spielberg (working in close tandem with composer and frequent collaborator John Williams’) pull back, allows situation and scene to speak for themselves, uses restraint, only underscore just how pedestrian and overblown the rest of the picture, especially the bookends, unfortunately is.
Still, I cannot dismiss just how striking Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography is, the way it eerily channels John Ford in so many in the Irish sequences (and Victor Flemings’ Gone with the Wind, of all things, during the finale scenes). Additionally, veteran editor Michael Kahn’s work is as seamless as ever, while Rick Carter’s production design borders on rhapsodic. Finally, as hard as I’m being on the film as a whole I can not dispute the filmmaker’s continued genius in regards to casting, the majority of the supporting roles inhabited by veteran character actors who fill them to perfection.
And so it moderately kills me how I cannot get over just how pedestrian much of War Horse feels, how so much of it moves in rhythms and tones as old and as tired as any the cinematic medium has ever crafted. I just kept having the feeling that Spielberg, for all his strengths, for all his dynamic vision, was going through the motions, and while some scenes achieve a luminous virtuosity the majority, most notably the central saga of Albert and Joey making their way through WWI hoping for a happy reunion, fall shockingly short. It left me cold, barren, emotionally empty, and if saying so makes me come across as a heartless cynic than I’m okay with that, Spielberg beating a horse that, while not dead, is so close to being so it essentially finds itself on life support.”
I want to say I was too hard on this film the first time around, that watching it again at home I felt more of a connection to it than I did in the theatre. Truth is, while the movie is hardly a chore to sit through a second time around, it didn’t do anything more for me during this repeat screening. I still loved all the same places and segments I did the first time around; still loathed the same portions I did during my initial promo screening before I wrote my review. Overall, my emotions did not change, and for the life of me I still can’t quite figure out why the picture has managed to develop as passionate a following as it inexplicably has.
At the same time, War Horse is harmless enough, and as an introduction to the horrors and history of WWI parents of fifth grade and up children could find far worse product to show them. Spielberg doesn’t do anything we don’t expect him to, doesn’t tread any sort of new ground, but he does manage to compile and present a handsome product all the same, and audiences far more tolerant than I will probably be far more amenable to the majority of it than I’ll arguably ever be.
War Horse is presented on a dual-layer 50GB Blu-ray MPEG-4 AVC Video with a 1080p 2.40:1 transfer. Say what you will about the movie, but drudging up any negatives in regards to this transfer borders on impossible. Disney has done a splendid job of preparing this film for hi-def, colors popping off the screen, contrast strong throughout and black levels bordering on splendiferous.
War Horse trots onto Blu-ray in English DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1, French DTS-HD HR 7.1 and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 and includes optional English SDH, Spanish and French subtitles. The audio is even better than the video, this English 7.1 transfer a robust and vibrant experience those with strong home theatre systems will undoubtedly go bananas for. This is reference quality stuff, and for those who wonder what the big deal with Blu-ray is here’s the audio transfer to present them with.
Extras here include:
· War Horse – The Journey Home (disc one) – Two part interview pieces with Spielberg leading the way, the director moderating a pair of roundtables with various members of the cast and crew.
· An Extra’s Point of View (disc one) – Lovely little short about Martin D. Dew, an extra’s extra.
· A Filmmaking Journey (disc two) – In-depth examination of the film through all aspects of its production. Outstanding.
· Editing & Scoring (disc two) – Ten minutes with John Williams and Michael Kahn, two of Spielberg’s most important colleagues and a pair of Oscar-winning titans who have been with him virtually since the beginning of his career.
· The Sounds of War Horse (disc two) - Gary Rydstrom on the film’s intricate and dynamic sound design.
· Through the Producer’s Lens (disc two) – Producer Kathleen Kennedy shows off her on-set photographs. In a word, they’re beautiful.
Spielberg doesn’t do audio commentaries, so the lack of one isn’t a surprise. The majority of the second disc’s extras are solid, if not particularly inspiring, the 60-plus minute A Filmmaking Journey easily the set’s highlight and the one extra I imagine I might take a look at again sometime in the future.
This four-disc also includes both DVD and Digital Copy versions of the film.
I’m not a fan of War Horse, but that said this Blu-ray is borderline marvelous, and fans (whoever you might be) will be hard-pressed to find a more sterling presentation than this.