[Screen It]


(2011) (Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan) (PG-13)

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Drama: A young man's horse is sold into service in WWI and ends up going through various owners and experiences during the war, all while his original owner hopes he might see him again.
It's 1914 and Albert Narracott (JEREMY IRVINE) is a young man who lives on a remote farm with his alcoholic father, Ted (PETER MULLAN), and long-suffering mother, Rose (EMILY WATSON). When Ted decides on a whim to outbid everyone else for a horse better suited for racing than plowing the fields, it seems that the landowner from whom they rent their place, Lyons (DAVID THEWLIS), will take back their farm. Albert is determined, however, that he can train Joey for such work and succeeds.

A bout of bad luck, however, ruins their crop, thus forcing Ted to sell the horse to Captain Nicholls (TOM HIDDLESTON) with the British military. Albert is heartbroken, and thus Nicholls agrees that he's just leasing Joey and will, if at all possible, return him to the young man upon the end of the war.

From that point on, the horse ends up in various battles as well as various hands, including that of Emilie (CELINE BUCKENS), a young girl who lives with her Grandfather (NIELS ARESTRUP). After the Germans confiscate the horse, he ends up with horse-keeper Gunther (DAVID KROSS) and his 14-year-old brother, Michael (LEONHARD CAROW), who go AWOL from the war.

As the months and years pass, Joey continues to move on from one person and perilous experience to the next, all as Albert finally ends up in the war and wonders if he'll ever see his horse again.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
For the most part, movie reviewers and the more serious-minded critics are nice people, and they really do love movies. Sometimes, however, something about a film or the experience of seeing it can bring out varying degrees of ill-will toward what they're reviewing. A talkative audience (the general public often sees films with us before the flicks open) can ruin the mood of many a reviewer, as can seeing too many of the puppeteer's strings in action.

That's far enough, but over my many years of reviewing the good, the bad and the ugly, I've also occasionally witnessed some sort of odd group mindset that sets in among reviewers who see a movie together in the same location. As a result, they end up feeling one way about a given flick, whereas the vast majority of reviewers elsewhere come up with a different conclusion.

That seems to be the case with "War Horse," Steven Spielberg's second film in just a week here in late December (the other being the animated "The Adventures of Tintin"). Based on Michael Morpurgo's novel that was turned into a successful stage production, the film is, natch, about such an Equus caballus that ends up traveling through various events and perils of WWI. I found it to be a highly engaging, well-made and even emotionally moving tale crafted in the grand fashion of movies of yesteryear.

Many of my fellow reviewer friends who saw it with me, however, have given it a thumbs down if not downright hated the offering, unlike most reviewers elsewhere who've liked or even loved it. To each his or her own, I guess. Since I don't recall any particular theater occurrence that would have set most everyone off, I figure the naysayers either were gunning to shoot down Spielberg once again and/or simply didn't like the directorial touch he employs with the material here.

Quite simply -- and quite effectively I might add -- that's to recreate sweeping and melodramatic epics like Hollywood used to make them. Yes, it's manipulative as all get-out, but that's the point and not a sign of sloppy or lazy filmmaking. The homage to old Westerns and war flicks (in terms of tone, color quality, shot selection, lighting, etc.) as well as "a boy and his you-fill-in-the-pet-species" (with all of the necessary tearjerker elements) is front and center.

Some of my fellow reviewers have complained that the flick and Lee Hall and Richard Curtis' screenplay don't focus on any human characters long enough to make them care, and that the episodic nature made the pic feel like a bunch of big set pieces tied together. Once again, the point apparently was missed as this is a purposefully modified version of the classic hero's journey.

Granted, it's not as easy to connect with an equine character as compared to their homo sapien counterparts, although I must say the various horses that portray Joey throughout the film perform better than various human actors I've seen over the years. That said, the tale is supposed to be about the varied people that come along in his life as he passes through the various stages of the war. As a result, and as is the case in old Greek mythology tales and such, he (and we) meet characters who are around for a bit, impact his life in one way or another, and then, for the most part, don't ever show up again (war-related deaths have a way of insuring that for many of them).

The central characters, if you can call them that as they really only bookend the 145-some minute runtime, consist of Jeremy Irvine as the horse's initial owner and Peter Mullan and Emily Watson as his farmer parents who have differing opinions on the logic of buying the horse in the first place. While the young actor is decent in the "boy and his..." part (especially considering it's his debut role), the adults give deeper performances, once again tapping into characterizations from long ago, much like many of the supporting performers.

The manipulation haters won't like John Williams' score that's present to push the necessary buttons, but I found it majestic, stirring and moving, while cinematographer Janusz Kaminski's lens work, as is to be expected, is nothing short of outstanding, which also holds true for Michael Kahn's editing. So are various scenes in the flick, most notably the war related ones. While Spielberg has kept the "Saving Private Ryan" style gore to a minimum, the scenes are still quite intense, as is a brief interlude in a trench battle when two soldiers from opposite sides bravely head into no man's land to free our heroic horse who's become entangled in barbwire.

While I can see why some people might not like what's offered, I found "War Horse" to be a completely engaging throwback to the grand epics of yesteryear and the various cinematic tricks and tactics used back then to pull them off in glorious style. The film rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed November 30, 2011 / Posted December 23, 2011

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