Based on the book by Michael Morpurgo
Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, Matt Milne, David Thewlis, Robert Emms, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Patrick Kennedy, David Kross, Celine Buckens, Niels Arestrup, Nicolas Bro, Toby Kebbell, Julian Wadham, Liam Cunningham, Eddie Marsan, and Pip Torrens
Release Date: December 25th, 2011
Young Albert Narracott's dreams come true when his father, drunken and surly, outbids their landlord for a young colt. The Narracott's were in desperate need of a plow horse but Albert has spent months watching the young colt grow, spying through the various fences of Devon, and knows that he can train him because they were destined to be together. Against all odds Albert succeeds only to lose his horse, Joey, because their crop failed and his father had no other recourse, drunk and bitter from the Boer War, he sells Joey. Another war has begun and Joey is sold to a Captain James Nicholls, an upstanding solider who promises to return Joey to Albert after the war. Albert begs to accompany Captain Nicholls but is too young to join up. Tearfully he promises Joey that they will be reunited. In France Joey a has steep learning curve, especially when it comes to being around other horses. But he quickly bonds with Major Jamie Stewart's black stallion and the two are inseparable, even as their riders are mowed down by German gunfire they remain together behind enemy lines. It is a long war and soon Albert is old enough and enlists and is stationed abroad. Will he find Joey or will they forever be separated?
War Horse, by it's episodic nature following Joey through all his adventures is reminiscent of Black Beauty. Therefore you could basically call this film Black Beauty Goes to War. The problem with this kind of storytelling is that you really have to be invested in the character of the horse. And while the horse who played Joey could easily be singled out as one of the best actors in the film, it still didn't make this film work. The main problem I had was that the film seemed to be taking it's subject matter too lightly. This could be seen in every frame with the overly perfect shutters and thatching on the Narracott's overly large farmhouse to the goose being used as comic relief. I don't think that Spielberg got the memo that England is supposed to be a little gloomy and run down. Instead he artifically lit most scenes, seriously, look at the two light sources in almost every scene! Oh, and that spotlight on Emily Watson when she leans out the window? What the hell? This was the best lit war EVER! The problem with this is that it literally felt like you were watching Babe or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, forever waiting for the animals to start talking or a Teletubby to wander by. I would also totally recommend those films before this one.
This overall stylization makes for a very sanitized Disneyfication of World War I. Yes, I know the lack of blood and the cunning use of windmill blades was to secure that ever important family friendly PG-13 rating to make this the holiday film of 2011, but still... why? Why the hyper exaggerated colors? Why this muted horror? Why tone down The Great War!?! This is an event that forever changed the world and this movie almost makes light of it. Yes, there are moments that pull on your heartstrings, but I don't think it gets across any important message that could be said about this war. If you wanted to really make this film right, don't pull punches. I mean, would you ever seriously imagine the director of Schindler's List pulling punches? This film could have opened up a dialogue with the younger generations who didn't know about the war and everyone could sit around sipping eggnog and discussing the atrocities. Instead it focuses on the more "romantic" nature of the war, wherein instead of soldiers putting down their weapons on Christmas and meeting in no man's land to have a sing-a-long and a game of football they all unite to save Joey from the barbed wire, even with comedic throwing of wire cutters. There shouldn't be comedic throwing of wire cutters people!
Speaking of the comedy... this film highlights the fact that comedy shouldn't be banned from the saga of war, just look to Blackadder! Comedy can be used if done right. Which is why I must hang my head in bafflement that this film was co-written by the co-writer of Blackadder! Richard Curtis! YES! I was just as shocked as you are, I'm assuming you're shocked here by the way. I couldn't believe that a man who handled the first world war with such insight, such nuance, could produce this schmaltz. SHAME ON YOU RICHARD CURTIS! You have let the schmaltz take over. Let's look to your IMDB credits shall we? Comedic and insightful genius through the eighties, I particularly love The Tall Guy and Rowan Atkinson's performance in that. The nineties are a little rockier, I hate Mr. Bean but my love of The Vicar of Dibley outshines anything because it's one of my favorite shows ever. The turn of the century started off strong with Bridget Jones's Diary and then it quickly went to hell in a handbasket. Love Actually, yes I know I'm alone in my hatred of that but I can't be alone in my hatred of the Bridget Jones sequel! Oh, and The Girl in the Cafe! You Richard Curtis have turned into some sort of romantic bleeding heart that has to have a "message" in their work. What happened to the quality of the work emphasizing the message versus the work being solely about the message? You have failed me sir, and you have failed War Horse.
Because the thing is, everyone I know who has read the book or seen the stage adaptation has been moved by the brilliance of War Horse. This wasn't brilliant, unless you are talking about the lighting. You can kind of glimpse what made the book stand out if you look for it. What I did find interesting was that by tracking Joey's journey we get to see the war from both sides. It's kind of like he is a prisoner of war, yet the English, aside from the stalwart Captain Nicholls, are just as barbarous and uncaring to their animals as the Germans. So buried deep there is the message hidden from sight that despite their differences, despite being on different sides, both sides are the same, just young boys being killed by the great war machine that cares little for them or animals. So I guess I could say it was nice that this wasn't all one-sided? We saw not very nice Englishmen, and some very nice Germans. And that poor French girl and her grandfather did a nice job representing those caught in-between the conflict. So, I guess what I'm trying to get at is that all the pieces where kind of there, just put together in such a way that the whole didn't work. It was too jumbled, too scattered, too toned down, too saccharine. And the thing is, the movie has kind of turned me off ever wanting to see the play or read the book and what if they really are as brilliant as people say? Then I'm just losing out because of some misguided desire of Spielberg's to make another war movie, but this time for the whole family.
I also can not lie about the fact that I really had to see this movie eventually because of the Hiddles/Cumberbatch confluence. Now, I'm not trying to be biased here, there are performances of theirs I haven't liked so I'm not always fawning on them. Hiddles was in that awful A Waste of Shame and was in the abysmal Cranford sequel, and I can not forget the mess that was High-Rise. As for Benedict... avoid Tipping the Velvet, Starter for 10, Atonement, and all those "Hobbit" but not really The Hobbit movies. Oh, and Parade's End! So when I say they were a highlight of this film I'm NOT playing favorites. But their appearances were more bitter than sweet, because for just a second you could see what this movie might have been. They are true actors, they fully physically embody the characters they play. In fact Benedict's performance as Major Jamie Stewart was fabulous because I one hundred percent hated him. The brusque voice, the posture where it always looked like he had a stick up his ass. This wasn't Benedict in all his goofiness, this was Major Stewart, and he could have been an interesting character if given more screen time. As for the naivety that Hiddles brought to Captain James Nicholls, the ability of him to show the horror of the realization that he is about to die using just his eyes... perhaps the most touching and real moments in this entire film. And there's not much reality to be had here.
Wednesday, September 28, 2016