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War Horse (2011)
Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment
Blu-ray Disc Released: 4/3/2012
All Ratings out of
Review by Mike Long, Posted on 4/26/2012
In one of the extras on the War Horse Blu-ray Disc, Steven Spielberg says that it's "not a war film". Well, we can debate about that all day, but it certainly features scenes of war and it raises the question, What is Spielberg's obsession with war movies? It all goes back to his 1979 flop 1941. Of course Raiders of the Lost Ark had shades of war, and things came more into focus with 1987's Empire of the Sun. Spielberg attack war directly in Schindler's List and then went totally overboard with Saving Private Ryan. (Surprisingly, War of the Worlds doesn't fit on this list.) And let's not forget his involvement in Band of Brothers and The Pacific. Yes kids, Spielberg likes his war movies and War Horse fits nicely into his filmography. But, how does it measure up as a movie?
War Horse opens in the early 20th Century in a rural British village. Local drunk Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) has never been much of a farmer and when he visits the town auction to buy a plow-horse, he overspends on a thoroughbred. Ted's wife Rose (Emily Watson), is furious, but his son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine) is fascinated by the animal and promises to look after it. Naming the horse Joey, Albert trains it and even manages to get it to plow. Then, word reaches the village that England is going to war with Germany. Desperate for money, Ted sells Joey to the Army. Albert is devastated by this news, but the officer in charge, Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) promises to take care of the horse. Joey is then taken to France, where his adventure is just beginning. As he passes from one human to the next, he remains a strong and resilient creature. Meanwhile, Albert is determined to join the military in order to find his horse.
War Horse is based on a 1982 novel by Michael Morpurgo which then became a stage play in 2007. I have not read the book, but it sounds interesting, as the story is told from Joey's perspective (in first person, no less). Clearly, this would allow us to get to know Joey and experiences all of the joy and pain which he suffers in the story from his point-of-view. It would have been a huge gamble to do this in the movie, as Spielberg would have either had to use voice-over or made the whole thing animated. But, the movie is fine without this, right? Well, no. While Joey is at the center of many scenes, he is simply portrayed as an animal, and despite evidence of great horse trainers off-screen, we really never know exactly what Joey is thinking, and thus, we don't get to know him. This robs the movie of a vital emotional connection. In addition, there are several scenes of human drama which don't involve Joey. In some, he's not even in the same country, so how could he have told that part of the story.
This lack of connectivity with the audience is further hampered by the episodic nature of the story. The point of the film is to show how Joey passes from person-to-person, soldiers and civilians, and to observe how the war affects their lives. However, this creates a jerky, stop and start effect where things shift just as we are getting to know the characters. Were the individual storylines more detailed in the novel, or are the truncated natures of the "chapters" meant to symbolize how Joey goes from place-to-place? Either way, it severely limits the amount of narrative flow in the film. In addition, with each subsequent change, Joey's life gets a little worse and the viewer will begin to take on a "Seriously?" attitude as Joey faces yet another struggle. The movie seems to take a cue from the Pixar folks in the finale, as the movie has one ending after another (and the finale ending was too sweet for my taste).
The good news is that these narrative issues can oft be ignored due to the film's technical prowess. Being a Spielberg movie, it's clear that no expense was spared in creating the epic, sweeping tone of the film. Spielberg clearly seems determined to do for World War I what he did for World War II in Saving Private Ryan, as the massive battlefield scenes are truly impressive. He gets a lot of mileage out of the various landscapes here and the use of extras and giant war machines really add a sense of realism.
With War Horse, Spielberg has taken a 200 page book aimed at children and turned it into a 2 1/2 hour extravaganza. But, it may be too much. As with Saving Private Ryan, the "war is hell" message is driven home ad nauseam. However, while we see Joey's struggles, we don't necessarily feel them and this is the film's downfall. I'm usually a sucker for movies with animals, but War Horse left me cold. I admire the amount of work which went into the film and all of the acting was good, especially the horses, but Spielberg's famed story-telling abilities failed him this time.
War Horse should have told us how much a guinea is on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 25 Mbps. The image is very sharp and clear, showing on overt grain and no defects from the source material. The image is notably crisp, which lends it a lot of depth, as the actors are nicely separated from the backgrounds. The colors look great and the image is never overly dark or bright. The level of detail is good, as the image is never soft and textures can be seen on objects. The Disc carries a DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 6.0 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. If you want to know about the power of this track, simply go to the big battle scene. The subwoofer effects are wall-shaking, but never distorted. The surround effects are great as well, as they are very detailed and allow us to pick out individual sounds. The stereo effects show good separation and illustrate sounds coming from off-screen.
The War Horse Blu-ray Disc set contains several extras. Disc 1 kicks off with "War Horse: The Journey Home" (20 minutes) a round-table discussion of the film with Spielberg, Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Producer Kathleen Kennedy, Tom Hiddleston, and Toby Kebbel, where the speakers touch on many elements of the movie, but focus mainly on the story and the themes. Minor actor Martin Dew shares his experiences on the movie in "An Extra's Point of View" (3 minutes). Disc 2 opens with "A Filmmaking Journey" (64 minutes), a very detailed making-of featurette which opens with Producer Kathleen Kennedy having seen the play in London and telling Spielberg about it. From there, we go into the actual production. The piece contains a wealth of on-set and behind-the-scenes footage, as well comments form many involved, including the book's author. "Editing & Scoring" (9 minutes) contains comments from Editor Michael Kahn and Composer John Williams, who discuss their approach to the film. Sound Designer/Re-recording Mixer Gary Rydstrom and Spielberg explain how the specific sound effects for the film were chosen in "The Sounds of War Horse" (7 minutes). "Through the Producer's Lens" (4 minutes) gives us a look at the many photos which Kennedy took on-set. The extras then spill over onto the DVD included in the set with "War Horse: The Look" (7 minutes), in which we get a overview of the cinematography, the costumes, and the production design. (Much of this is repeated from "A Filmmaking Journey".)
Review Copyright 2012 by Mike Long