Friday, January 20, 2012

War Horse - Theatrical Review


Release Date: December 25, 2011

When I first saw the trailer for War Horse it immediately struck a chord in me. It appeared to carry with it all the elements I loved from past films of Steven Spielberg. While it certainly looked and sounded the part, it didn't really fit the part for me.

Review Vital Stats:
Theater: Arclight Pasadena
Time: 3:55 pm January 1, 2012
Projector Type: Digital 2D
Film Rating: PG-13
Film Runtime: 1 hr 43 min
Studio: Paramount

Loves: Steven Spielberg, sweeping epics
Likes: The look and feel of the movie
Neutral: Unfocused narrative
Hates: When things get too melodramatic, too many characters
Fact: This was inspired by a stage play of the same name

Steven Spielberg has been busy this past year, very busy. He has produced more films and television shows than I care to count but it is when he sits in that director's chair when I truly start to pay attention. It has been 3 years since we last got a film from him as a director and even longer if you want to consider the quality of the films he directed. Then for some reason he decided to drop two films on us at once, The Adventures of Tintin which is a fun adventure in the vain of his Indiana Jones films and War Horse, a sort of throw back to some of the more dramatic fare he gave us back in the mid to late 80s. While Tintin was a huge success in my opinion and provided me with a fine mix of nostalgia and new elements, War Horse was able to capture the look and feel of those other Spielberg classics but it just wasn't able to be quite as sincere about what it wanted to do.

We first meet Joey, a grand thoroughbred horse, as he is brought into this world out in an open field. This is also where Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) first lays eyes upon Joey of whom he takes a liking to quite quickly. Their paths cross once again the day Albert's father, Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) purchases Joey at a local auction after a bidding war with their landowner Lyons (David Thewlis). Ted's ego may have got the best of him though as his wife Rose (Emily Watson) points out that the horse isn't built for working on a farm and that they must take it back. Feeling a connection to Joey, Albert volunteers to train and break the horse in which leads to a great friendship forged between the two. But war is coming and with the Narracott farm in financial troubles, Joey is sold off to help pay the bills and support the war effort. We then follow Joey and witness different facets of the war through his eyes and the eyes of those he comes in contact with.

Albert meets Joey for the first time.

Have you ever had one of those movies that did everything right but still felt off somehow? That's how I felt about War Horse, Steven Spielberg's latest sweeping war epic about a horse and his journey through the first world war. It had all the qualities one would expect from the director of films such as Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun. It uses one of the world's greatest wars as a backdrop to a very intimate story, has plenty of poignant moments with many of its characters, is littered with those classic Spielberg touches of humor and grandeur, looks stunning with plenty of amazing vistas and has yet another fantastic score by John Williams. If it had all that then why do I still feel so indifferent to it? Why do I feel as though the film didn't deliver on its promise?

First of all I would like to make mention that my issues with the film have nothing to do with the fact that the main protagonist of the story is a horse. I have seen plenty of other films that have used an animal as the central figure and succeeded. You have Babe which admittedly is an unfair comparison since the animals talked in that film but a more apt comparison is to something like The Bear, where we followed the exploits of the title animal with little to no human interaction at all. So the idea of a film where we follow a horse through the course of an entire war held a lot of appeal to me. Plus war films in general have very little of anything new to tell us anymore aside from the odd personal story here and there.

Joey wonders why he doesn't have much to do in the middle of the movie.

War Horse didn't fail because of it's choice in who we would be following, it failed because it lost its focus along the way. You see, the film starts out simple enough, we see Joey born and how he eventually comes into the care of Albert. Then we get to see Joey and Albert bond during their training sessions and even more so when they must work together in order to pull off a miracle that will save their farm. All that stuff was fantastic, Spielberg did a bang up job introducing us to all these characters. Albert's father and mother were great, all the neighboring farmers were fun and even the cliche villain Lyons was fairly interesting. The problem lies with how the film suddenly shifts gears and trades the story of these two close friends for what at first appears to be a much grander vision but ultimately squanders much of the dramatic tension it was working towards.

Now yes, I know the film is called War Horse for a reason. I knew that we weren't going to be staying on that farm forever. I knew that was mostly used as a way to introduce us to the characters before they started on their own separate adventures where they would eventually try and find one another amongst a battlefield covered in bodies and constant gun fire. Once again, my problem is not with the shift in direction exactly but more with the shift in focus. Maybe I was wrong for expecting this but I was under the impression that the core of the film would be about Albert and Joey trying to reunite after being forced to separate. While that element is still there it is mostly shoved to the last act of the film where as the entire middle section is comprised of Joey meeting all these different individuals on his journey back home.

Albert wonders why he doesn't show up again until the end.

I understand what Spielberg was going for here, he wanted to use Joey as the commonality between all these disparaging stories, the tie that binds so to speak. But by making the focus these other miscellaneous characters that we have little to no time to get attached to in any meaningful way it detracts from everything he was building up in that first hour on the farm. When Joey goes off to war I expected the film to be cutting back and forth between Joey's journey home and Albert's search for his friend but instead the film stays with Joey the entire time and save for one scene with Albert back at the farm we never see him again until the final moments of the story. My gripe and biggest question comes from why did we spend so much time on that farm watching this bond forge between Joey and Albert only to have it cast aside later in favor of the multi-character plotlines that get introduced?

The real sad part is that both ways have their own merits and would work fine on their own. As I already mentioned numerous times now, the story of two friends (horse or not) being separated and tirelessly searching for each other while in middle of a war is solid stuff. Then the idea of following an object (the horse in this case) from owner to owner and viewing the war from both sides of the coin as well as the innocent civilians caught in the middle is also very solid. I just kind of wish that Spielberg would have picked one or the other because even with the long running time of the film neither one ever truly gets enough screen time to fulfill its promise.

As expected, the film has a great sense of scale to it and looks amazing.

For example, the soldier who purchases Joey from the Narracotts is given some very brief moments of character growth before we move on to the next person Joey comes in contact with. Then we are given a few key scenes with that character until we move on to the next one and so on and so on. Each time we move on to a new human character that comes in contact with Joey it is as if everything else that came before it and that comes after it is in this little bottled reality. It's not so much that none of it matters, its that it matters but only for that moment we are with those characters. With one lone exception, none of those characters ever come back and nothing of any real importance happens for Joey during that time with those people. He is literally pushed off to the side for the majority of the middle section of the film which just didn't feel right.

Which is the real problem at hand here actually. Joey is the main character of the film and the fact that he is a horse is kind of a non factor by the time we reach that hour mark and have spent every minute with him. So when he starts switching ownership between all these other characters and the film starts focusing on them instead of what Joey is going through it sort of devalues everything we went through with Joey and Albert on that farm. I will say that there are a few noteworthy scenes with Joey that pop up (especially a rather brilliant scene with Joey stuck in the middle of a ravaged battlefield) but all those did were remind me how little we actually got to see of Joey during those segments. Worse yet is that Albert is a major piece to the puzzle and (I'm not sure how accurate this is) he disappears from the film for what felt like a good forty to fifty minutes until we discover near the end of the film that he has enlisted and is part of the war. We assume he is there looking for Joey but since we never got to witness his struggle to get to where he is we are forced to just imagine that is the truth.

Joey has been through some shit.

You may think that I dislike War Horse (and rightfully so I guess) but I don't dislike it at all, I accept what it is but I just don't think it worked out like it should have for me. I liked a lot of the individual pieces, some of the people we meet along the way were very likable and all were memorable in their own way. I thought the connection between Joey and Albert was perfectly realized and despite some very melodramatic and overly sappy contrivances that lead the two back together again at the end it came to a satisfying enough conclusion. Although what was up with that distractingly fake horizon background during the homecoming scene at the very end of the film? That just looked really bad for some reason.

I guess I am coming down on the film so much because I saw a lot of potential in everything it was trying to do and was saddened that it didn't just pick one thing and focus on that. There are two really great films here, one about a powerful friendship forged between man and animal and another about seeing a devastating war from multiple angles. I can understand why so many people find the film to be a moving drama because all those separate pieces are done extremely well. I just didn't think they came together in a well enough fashion to make a good whole in the end. Regardless of what I think though there is no denying that this is a Steven Spielberg film and with that comes a film that looks fantastic, sounds incredible, has a cast that are all on their A game and is a pleasant enough romp for the entire family despite having a war as its backdrop. So with that I put out a very lukewarm recommendation and say...




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