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War Horse: 4-Disc Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy Review

War Horse (2011) movie poster War Horse

Theatrical Release: December 25, 2011 / Running Time: 146 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Steven Spielberg / Writers: Lee Hall, Richard Curtis (screenplay); Michael Morpurgo (novel); Nick Stafford (stage play)

Cast: Jeremy Irvine (Albert Narracott), Peter Mullan (Ted Narracott), Emily Watson (Rosie Narracott), Niels Arestrup (Grandfather), David Thewlis (Lyons), Tom Hiddleston (Capt. Nicholls), Benedict Cumberbatch (Maj. Jamie Stewart), Celine Buckens (Emilie), Toby Kebbell (Geordie Soldier), Patrick Kennedy (Lt. Charlie Waverly), Leonard Carow (Michael), David Kross (Gunther), Matt Milne (Andrew Easton), Robert Emms (David Lyons), Eddie Marsan (Sgt. Fry), Nicolas Bro (Friedrich), Rainer Bock (Brandt), Hinnerk Schφnemann (German Soldier in No Man's Land), Gary Lydon (Si Easton), Geoff Bell (Sgt. Sam Perkins), Liam Cunningham (Army Doctor)

Buy War Horse from Amazon.com: 4-Disc Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy • 2-Disc DVD + Blu-ray • DVD • Instant Video

For much of his long, illustrious directing career, there have been two Steven Spielbergs: the playful adventurer whose commercial track record is unrivaled and the serious filmmaker who commits to bringing historical drama to life in rich detail. The two have co-existed, on several occasions releasing major works in different seasons of the same calendar year.
In the summer of 1993, he gave us a blockbuster for the ages in Jurassic Park. Six months later came Schindler's List, the most widely exalted film of the past thirty years. The Spielbergs followed that pattern again in 1997 (with The Lost World in May and Amistad in December) and in 2005 (War of the Worlds right before Independence Day and Munich right before Christmas).

Earlier in his career, the lines were not so clearly drawn; Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T. each topped the box office in their years en route to Best Picture Oscar nominations. Lately, though, it's been easy to surmise whether some technical award consideration and big box office receipts are expected or more modest receipts and recognition in the major categories. After three and a half years without a directorial release, Spielberg ended up with two films scheduled to open within four days of each other and Christmas 2011. Despite that identical, calculated timing, the movies seemed to add a credit for each of the director's two faces, The Adventures of Tintin intended as blockbuster fun and War Horse as the artistic effort worthy of merit.

Both films only partly lived up to their expectations, with Tintin stumbling financially in the US and War Horse not getting quite the red-hot critical reception long foreseen. Neither could be called a hit domestically and with that, David Fincher shockingly seems to have eclipsed Spielberg as a commercial draw.

Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) is enamored with the horse he calls Joey to what some might call an excessive degree.

Adapted from a 1982 children's novel and an award-winning 2007 play, War Horse tells the story of an equine whom life takes on an interesting journey through World War I. In rural Devon, England, a poor farmer (Peter Mullan) wins a thoroughbred colt in an auction for thirty guineas. His wife (Emily Watson) is none too pleased with the impulsive drunken purchase, the brown horse with white head markings unlikely to ease the family's debts, which their landlord (David Thewlis) is eager to collect. The farmer's teenaged son Albert (Jeremy Irvine), however, is enamored with his new friend and vows to break him. Sure enough, with enough time and care, Albert tames the stallion, whom he names Joey, and gets him to plow the family's modest plot.

Around forty minutes are spent on this, transparently establishing a deep friendship between boy and horse. That makes it painful for Albert to have to part with his friend at the outbreak of The Great War. His father sells the animal to Captain Nicholls (the suddenly ubiquitous Tom Hiddleston) for the same thirty guineas he spent. Albert objects, vowing to do anything to keep his beloved horse. On the plus side, Nicholls respects the attachment and his new transportation method, whom he soon rides in leading his calvalry in a surprise raid on the Germans in France.

The raid is ultimately a losing effort, resulting in ownership of Joey changing yet again. The horse next becomes the means of desertion for two young German soldiers. It ends up in a French stable, where it is lovingly adopted by a young girl (Celine Buckens) and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup). Then, the Germans find the horse and again make use of it. Meanwhile, Albert never forgets his friend, even after he becomes old enough to enlist in the Army, which he does.

Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) admires the colored sash that comes with his new horse. Emilie (Celine Buckens) and her Grandfather (Niels Arestrup) have a brief but memorable time with Joey.

War Horse is absolutely a film made with prestige in mind. It squarely fits the modern definition of an awards film, with its substantial length, historical backdrop, sweeping scope, and sentimental tone.
Never mind that a survey of recent Oscar winners like Crash, The Departed, No Country for Old Men, and Slumdog Millionaire forgo these qualities almost entirely. War Horse is the type of movie you recognize as Oscar bait with a brief glimpse of the poster art or just a few seconds of the trailer.

There's nothing wrong with that necessarily, but you do enter with your expectations of everything but surprises raised. Never for a second do you doubt that Spielberg will deliver a technically polished and dramatically competent motion picture. And he does. Boasting thoughtful compositions by Janusz Kaminski, the director's only cinematographer of the past twenty years, and yet another familiarly moving (and Oscar-nominated) score by John Williams, War Horse is a fine movie from a man whose directorial efforts have almost never been less than satisfactory.

Despite the ample ambition and savory execution, though, the film doesn't quite captivate or inspire. It is the kind of movie that Spielberg could make in his sleep and there is something sleepy about this production, whose origins carry a great deal less passion than his past historical dramas and even the long-developed, ultimately overlapping Tintin. Basically, Spielberg saw the original West End play on the recommendation of his long-trusted producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall (who snapped up the film rights), liked what he saw and used his endless clout and resources to make the movie as he saw fit. Spielberg has absolutely nothing to prove to anyone and here he seems to almost relish the opportunity to make a grand, accessible, heartwarming, old-fashioned yarn without doing anything uncharacteristic or unexpected. He doesn't have to; he's Steven Spielberg, the one filmmaker viewers of every age and nation give a pass to for the wealth of exciting wonderment he has given over the years.

Forgive me if you're picking up condescension. I'm a huge Spielberg fan and I don't think that I'd rank any other modern director above him. As unhip as the Internet has decided Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was, I'll defend it enthusiastically. I think his War of the Worlds was awesome. I agree with the consensus that Jaws is just about perfect and to that I will add so is Jurassic Park, a film whose excellence I expect to be acknowledged universally within a generation.

By 1918, Albert (Jeremy Irvine) is old enough to fight for the British Army in World War I. As God is his witness, Ted'll (Peter Mullan) never be beardless again.

For me, War Horse has a lot to live up to and disappointingly, it does not. This movie seems guilty of the things with which Spielberg's rare detractors dismiss his crowdpleasers. It's pretty corny and schmaltzy. That is more the fault of the screenplay by Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) and Richard Curtis (Love Actually and other hit British comedies). But Spielberg runs with it, moving us from one comedic-tragic world to the next until delivering us the inevitable storybook ending. With that said, there are a number of very nice moments in War Horse, including a poignant scene in which a British solider and a German one work together to free Joey from a painful suit of barbed wire. But I can barely write that sentence without the word "cornball" coming to mind. Maybe some time will soften those sentiments; people accused Frank Capra of being corny and today his movies hold up better than any others from their era.

War Horse scored Oscar six nominations -- for Best Picture, Art Direction, Cinematography, Original Score, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing -- but it wasn't able to win any of those categories, losing four to Hugo and the other two to The Artist. The lack of a Best Director nod for Spielberg makes utterly clear that had the Academy not expanded the Best Picture category beyond five nominees, War Horse would not have competed for that top prize. Having emerged from the award season with little more than nominations and from the holiday movie season without having delighted the world, War Horse seems pretty likely to be forgotten pretty quickly, even as Spielberg returns to the prestige historical drama well with this coming Christmas' Lincoln. The director's prowess ensures that War Horse will never be entirely obscure, but his diverse filmography doesn't inspire quite the same degree of fanaticism and surveying as some of his other significant contemporaries, like Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen.

War Horse rides to home video just in time for Easter, with DreamWorks Pictures distributor Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment treating it to a DVD, a DVD + Blu-ray in DVD packaging, and, the subject of this review, a 4-disc 2 Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy combo pack.

War Horse: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy combo pack cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

2.40:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
Blu-ray: 7.1 DTS-HD MA (English), 7.1 DTS-HD HR (French)
DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French)
Both: Dolby Digital 5.1 (Spanish), Dolby Surround 2.0 (Descriptive Video Service)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish; Blu-ray Bonus Disc only:
DVD Film and Extra Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled
Release Date: April 3, 2012 / Suggested Retail Price: $45.99
Four single-sided discs (BD-50, BD-25, DVD-9, and DVD-5 DVD-ROM)
Thick Blue Keepcase with Embossed Cardboard Slipcover
Also available as standalone DVD ($29.99 SRP), 2-Disc DVD + Blu-ray ($39.99 SRP), and on Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

If War Horse doesn't wow you creatively, it will do so on a technical level. The Blu-ray's 2.40:1 picture is just about flawless, treating us to Kaminski's deservedly celebrated cinematography with remarkable sharpness, vibrance, and clarity. The default 7.1 DTS-HD master audio is even better. If this movie were to win any Oscars, it would have been for the sound, which is truly top-notch. Full of directionality and impact, the soundtrack is demo material almost all the way through and a perfect way to showcase the power of lossless HD audio.

Sitting at the head of a roundtable gathering his friends, Steven Spielberg can't help but smile in "The Journey Home." In costume as a German soldier, Martin D. Dew provides "An Extra's Point of View."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Just two extras accompany War Horse on its movie Blu-ray.

Not your typical featurette, "The Journey Home" (19:35) assembles a roundtable with Steven Spielberg, producer Kathleen Kennedy, and cast members Jeremy Irvine, Tom Hiddleston, Emily Watson, and Toby Kebbell.
Halfway in, the actors leave and are replaced by screenwriter Richard Curtis, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, production designer Rick Carter, costume designer Joanna Johnston, and editor Michael Kahn. Both groups' tightly-edited talk on the film frequently cuts away to clips and a tiny bit of behind-the-scenes footage.

"An Extra's Point of View" (3:06) gives us background actor Martin D. Dew's perspective on production. He touches on the looks of his assorted screen-filling characters and his research. It is a short but sweet alternative to the usual making-of pieces.

Four additional features are housed on the set's exclusive second Blu-ray disc, an unusual but not unnecessary step (the two discs combine for around 60 GB, or ten more than a dual-layered BD's capacity).

A camera mounted on a Mercedes and a crew member with a boom mic capture a calvalry's charge in "A Filmmaking Journey." Producer Kathleen Kennedy shares her sentiments and still photos in "Through the Producer's Lens."

"A Filmmaking Journey" (1:04:13) is a long general documentary on the movie's creation. It's a solid companion to the film, though very slick and polished. It covers just about every aspect of production with tons of B-roll, touching on everything from outdoor filming conditions and cast boot camp to the horses and pre-visualization. It moves from one topic to another without much organization or reason, but bookending sequences from the first and last day of shooting are nice touch. In short, this should meet (and likely exceed) viewers' War Horse making-of needs, but it would have been nice for this to feel different from a super-extended routine featurette.

"Editing & Scoring" (8:53) pays notice to the contributions of longtime Spielberg associates Michael Kahn and John Williams, placing more emphasis on the latter's compositions.

"The Sounds of War Horse" (7:13) lets accomplished sound designer Gary Rydstrom detail what went into certain sound-driven sequences. It's less dull than it sounds (no pun intended), as Rydstrom pours passion into authentically mixing everything from WWI weaponry to horse recordings.

The DVD-only featurette "The Look" gives us six minutes of making-of footage seemingly included in the Blu-ray's longer bonus features. The bonus Blu-ray disc's menu gives us artistic renderings of behind-the-scenes action, like this lovely drawing of Steven Spielberg at work.

Finally, "Through the Producer's Lens" (4:04) has Kathleen Kennedy share her photographs from the set and her thoughts on the film.

The DVD gets what appears to be an exclusive bonus feature in "War Horse: The Look" (6:29), which serves up behind-the-scenes footage on the various components that comprise the film, from locations to costumes to production design.
In fact, it seems to be just an extremely abridged version of "A Filmmaking Journey", though it's something that would have been a nice inclusion on the movie Blu-ray disc.

As usual for a Disney combo pack, the digital copy disc contains transferrable files in iTunes and Windows Media formats. There is none of the UltraViolet streaming option that other studios have come to love.

Demonstrating the kind of power Spielberg has, the Blu-ray and DVD open with a single item, TheTruth.com's urban cowboy anti-tobacco ad. No sneak peeks of any kind are found anywhere on the set.

The Blu-ray and main DVD menu "draw" scenes before bringing them to life with clips while Williams' score flares. The bonus Blu-ray's menu applies the same treatment to behind-the-scenes footage.

The four discs are packed in a wider than standard Blu-ray case, where they're joined by an insert of digital copy directions and activation code. The case is topped by a stylish slipcover whose face is embossed and textured to resemble... a horse? Feels more like a football to me.

Joey the War Horse has the most screen time of anyone as he rides on both sides of World War I.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

When it comes to movies he's directed and not merely produced, even a lesser Spielberg effort trumps the best work of many filmmakers. War Horse is far from greatness and the least deserving of last year's Best Picture nominees, but this sweet drama remains enjoyable to some degree with its handsome production values and a story that is essentially impossible to dislike.

The picture and sound quality on this Blu-ray are outstanding, and the supplements are substantial if not quite spellbinding. You'll have to be pretty big on special features, digital copies, or packaging uniformity to opt for this 4-disc combo pack over the basic Blu-ray + DVD, but you do get a lot more for what is currently just a couple of dollars difference. Nonetheless, the film may very well be a one-time viewing for you.

Buy War Horse from Amazon.com:
4-Disc Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy / 2-Disc DVD + Blu-ray / DVD / Instant Video

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Related Reviews:
2011 Best Picture Nominees: The Help • Hugo • Midnight in Paris • The Tree of Life • The Descendants • Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close • Moneyball
Directed by Steven Spielberg: Lincoln • Bridge of Spies • The Adventures of Tintin • Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull • Raiders of the Lost Ark
New to Blu-ray: A Night to Remember • My Week with Marilyn • The Last Temptation of Christ • The Muppets • Hop
War: Paths of Glory • Wings • All Quiet on the Western Front • The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep
Horses: Secretariat • The Young Black Stallion • The Horse in the Grey Flannel Suit

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Reviewed April 3, 2012.



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