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A miraculous kind of an horse...
on February 19, 2012
I thoroughly enjoyed this film. After seeing it at the theater I came onto Amazon, as I often do, to add it to my wishlist. I then read the unexcited reviews that were found on the product page and thought I should write a review to posit a counter opinion. The other reviews posted didn't seem to have enjoyed the film, two major criticisms being that they found it melodramatic and heavy handed, comments like these make me wonder if audiences have become so cynical that they view any attempt at displaying open/honest emotion to be an attempt at manipulation. Everyone has differing opinions but I feel this film will appeal to anyone who enjoys stylistically well made films and/or anyone who enjoys stories about bonds/will being tested. In a general sense Spielberg uses the story of this horse to explore the human condition and explore some very well done set pieces/environments.
As I saw it, the horse is a metaphor for hope and how it can be shared and spread, how it can inspire and endure. I don't mean this in an over sentimental way but just in a very real way. We are all hopeful for different things, big and small, and this film is about how under the right conditions and with the right persistence that hope can avoid being snuffed out or lost.
The film, based on a play I have not seen and cannot compare it to, is episodic as the horse goes from owner to owner during the years of World War 1. The fact that the film was episodic didn't make it feel chopped up or give it the feel of a broken narrative. I felt the through line of the film was the human condition and the traveling horse facilitated the telling of several viewpoints while exploring the excellent recreation of a time period. The acting was top notch by everyone seen on screen. To counter another criticism, the main human character, a boy named Albert, does show strong affection for the horse, a character in the film quips "come on now boy, it's not as if he were a dog". I didn't find this relationship to be strange, the horse simply becomes very important to Albert because as we see he doesn't have much to his life and the horse is something he gets that then works to make his life better. Perhaps I also never found it strange as I always found the horse to be representative of hope rather than as just some random animal.
The writing in terms of dialogue flowed and felt incredibly natural, as it does in most Spielberg films. John Williams score, while clearly a John Williams score, is the perfect mix of innocence, action/adventure and drama as the story calls for it. I would strongly compare the pacing and acting to Catch Me if You Can, as that film also had several major settings that shifted as the film progressed. I found War Horse to actually be better paced as it has a few more settings (about 5, possibly 6 in total?) and each one is shorter than the ones in the aforementioned film. Best of all the film actually ends when it ends, the story concludes and there are no tacked on or forced endings for the sake of pandering or over explaining as many recent films have had.
As far as the directing, I don't know if one can compare anything to the seeming effortless magic he created in his early films or certain efforts from the 90's but this would be Spielberg above his recent best and closer to those older films in quality. Everything unfolds visually in such an easy to follow an familiar way while still being unique and involving. There are some masterful shots that recall the opening of Saving Private Ryan but in an artistically different way. This is unquestionably due in part to the fact that this film has been made family friendly, while that could serve as a criticism I didn't find the film to be aimed specifically at families, though it has been made to facilitate viewing by younger children. Rather than illustrating the pure violence of battle as he did in SPR, Spielberg spends his time in this film showing the brutality of war in a creative fashion that suggests the horror more than displaying it. There is one such scene in particular where mounted soldiers ride into battle and on the other end of the shot their empty horses emerge without many of the riders they once carried.
In a sea of films about special effects, high concept stories or big names here is a film that is a complete film on its own without any gimmicks, as fun as gimmicks can be (Mi4 for example). This film is an actual experience for those who are open to it. Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was an excellently crafted film that pushed the dark and grittiness, War Horse is a excellently crafted film that pushes the lighter elements but both are equally enjoyable and excellently made. Watching a good Spielberg film is like watching the epitome of what film is. It's like more recently watching Christopher Nolan's films, there are always flaws in any film but films such as theirs are so carefully and purposefully made as films that they are engaging and fully engrossing.
One potential weakness I will admit, though I feel a reviewing of the film would diminish it, is that the film doesn't have as strong an arc as most films. The characters change but so much of it is internal here. The horse's first owner does change but he is absent through the middle of the film, the various other owners also change in varying ways but all during their own vignettes. The horse itself has changed in much the same way as his owner as suggested by the final shot of the film, but perhaps critical audience members won't pick up on this. That said, one could (and I would say should) view this subtlety as purposeful. The film isn't as much about how the boy or the horse has changed but how despite all they've been through they managed to stay so much the same, they maintain what could easily have been lost.
I dunno, I personally love it (5 Stars) but for objectivity I'll give it 4/5 for general audiences, I think most everyone I described at the beginning of this review will like this film if they view it. For those who feel it is heavy handed and melodramatic go and watch Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, its also an excellent film but there is no overt display of emotion to be found there. Thanks for your time