Of the two films that Steven Spielberg made in 2011, only one of them got an Oscar nomination. War Horse is that film and for some reason it got a lot of critical praise, while Spielberg’s much better film, The Adventures of Tintin, didn’t get a single mention by the Academy. It troubles me to say this, but War Horse is an empty drama that tries so hard to make a relationship between a boy and his horse stick, but it just doesn’t work. It leaves you generally disliking most of the characters and surprised that Spielberg’s name somehow managed to attach itself to the project.
Albert (Jeremy Irvine) is a young boy living with his mother and father on a troubled farm. When his father goes to buy a work horse he ends up coming home with something much less valuable, at first. Everyone in the village laughs at Albert’s father as he spends a big amount of his money on a horse that is later named Joey.
Determined to prove everyone else otherwise, Albert sets out to train Joey in the fields and that’s exactly what he does. It’s not long before Joey proves to be a fit companion for any man. Joey and Albert form a bond like no other and that bond is shattered when the War starts, causing Albert’s dad to sell Joey to an army man by the name of Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston). Nicholls makes a promise to Albert that if he can, he will return Joey after the war.
From that point on War Horse becomes a shifting drama that is rapidly introducing new characters as fast as it kills established ones off. While some might like Spielberg’s new approach to a traditional story, others (like myself) find it hard to invest into any of these characters if they’re only given 10 to 15 minutes of screen time before we’re forcefully introduced to another set of characters. It makes the film become distant and this distance creates a large gap between the viewer and the film.
The only real characters you’re supposed to form a liking with are Joey and Albert, but Albert gets taken out of the film for the entire middle act. So you’re left with the Joey the horse. I get that one can look at the film as a message between how strong a man’s bond can be with an animal and that bonds strong enough show no bounds. War, race, species, none of that really matters, but it just doesn’t make for good cinema.
I’ve never seen such an unlikable little wimp like Albert. How is someone supposed to care for his relationship with Joey if you can’t even stand watching him for more than 20 minutes at a time? The only real acting done in the entire film is provided by the always great Tom Hiddleston, who takes such a short amount of screen time and manages to make the best performance out of it. His Captain Nicholls is full of compassion, pride and honor. It just goes to show you how much talent Hiddleston really houses and I can’t wait to see him in future projects.
It also appears that Steven Spielberg has called upon frequent collaborator John Williams to compose yet another sappy score that practically tells you how you’re supposed to feel. Each and every track is both loud and obnoxiously upbeat (which means you’re supposed to be laughing or cheering) or dark and gloomy (which is when you’re supposed to be crying or worried). I get that scores are supposed to channel the mood of the film, but some of the opening tracks are so damn obvious and they don’t provide any room to let the emotion of the particular scene take you over.
Steven Spielberg‘s direction is strong though. He manages to capture some of the most beautiful shots of such a horrid situation like war. The trench warfare is eye-opening and uncomfortably raw in how it shows the dozens of bodies lying dead on the barbwire. Spielberg continues to show his talent as an action director, never going for the cheap shaky cam, instead keeping the camera mounted and distant. There’s a lot of stunning scenery in the film and it does make it a lot more watchable.
The story just doesn’t click with me and I fear that I’m in the minority. War Horse has some powerful imagery, with a few notable performances, but it’s mostly wasted on a relationship that doesn’t register and characters that never stick.
War Horse comes to Blu-Ray with a striking 1080p video transfer. There’s a lot of different scenery on display in the film and almost every single frame looks like a work of art. The opening act consists of bright greens and big landscapes, which are full of rich color and consistent detail. The war-filled second and third acts are dark, ugly and unsettling, but detail remains extremely sharp. Things like dirt, grime, blood and the reality of war haven’t looked this good in a while. There are a few moments where the detail isn’t as strong and some of the picture suffers from brief banding, but only for seconds.
The 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is an atomic bomb on the eardrums. The film opens soft, with Williams’ score forcing itself into the channels. Dialogue loudly comes out of the front channels. The track gets really good when the war starts. Bombs are dropped on the back channels, while gunfire and aftermath comes shooting across all channels. The attention to detail during the trench warfare is spectacular. There’s not a dull moment throughout the entire last act, everything is evenly mixed and detailed to near-perfection.
War Horse comes with a good spread of short material, as well as lengthy piece with director Steven Spielberg. Here’s a full list of the special features below:
- War Horse: The Journey Home (HD): Director Steven Spielberg discusses various aspects of the film with cast/crew members.
- War Horse: The Look (HD): Steven Spielberg, Rick Carter, Joanna Johnston and Janusz Kaminski discuss the look and feel of the film and how they accomplished it.
- An Extra’s Point of View (HD): Extra Martin Dew discusses the importance of being an extra and how so many extras helped make War Horse feel more authentic. There’s also a brief clip of Steven Spielberg personally thanking several extras.
- A Filmmaking Journey (HD): This is the most extensive special feature on the disc, clocking in over an hour long with director Steven Spielberg providing an in-depth look at the making of the film.
- Editing & Scoring (HD): Michael Kahn and John Williams talk about the editing and composing for the film and their relationship with director Steven Spielberg.
- The Sounds of War Horse (HD): Sound designer Gary Rydstrom provides us with a behind-the-scenes look at the sound design created for the film.
- Through The Producer’s Lens (HD): A brief clip featuring producer Kathleen Kennedy discussing the films source material as well as sharing various photos.
- DVD Copy
- Digital Copy
War Horse is a perfect example of a passable rental that might work best at home. The film itself might work well for some, while providing disappointment for others, but at least the Blu-Ray looks clean and colorful. The audio track is surely going to test the quality of anyone’s home theater setup. Closing out the combo pack is a small bundle of quick, painless features as well as an in-depth feature that digs a little deeper into the mind of Steven Spielberg and how he filmed War Horse.
War Horse makes for a well-rounded rental. What the film lacks in quality it makes up for with a strong video transfer, a finely detailed audio track and a respectable batch of bonus material.