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The Blu-Ray Dissection: War Horse (Four-Disc Combo Pack)

May 10, 2012 | Posted by Chad Webb
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The Blu-Ray Dissection: War Horse (Four-Disc Combo Pack)  

Jeremy Irvine: Albert Narracott
Peter Mullan: Ted Narracott
Emily Watson: Rose Narracott
Niels Arestrup: Grandfather
David Thewlis: Lyons
Tom Hiddleston: Captain Nichols
Benedict Cumberbatch: Major Jamie Stewart
Celine Buckens: Emilie
Toby Kebbell: Geordie Soldier
Patrick Kennedy: Lt. Charlier Waverly
Eddie Marsan: Sgt. Fry
Directed By: Steven Spielberg
Written By: Lee Hall and Richard Curtis
Theatrical Release Date: December 25, 2011
Blu-Ray Release Date: April 3, 2012
Running Time: 146 minutes


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Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of war violence

The Film

Despite favorable reviews from critics, being a box office success, and having been based on a Tony nominated Broadway play, War Horse attracted a great deal of negative attention once it picked up six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. This was criticized by many and disregarded as Oscar bait. The rationale behind using this label always struck me as confused and hasty. That is not say it is completely absent of those qualities, but I wonder what the definition of “Oscar bait” is to people because I don’t think the accusation was well thought out here. True, this family friendly picture has numerous qualities that would have charmed the Academy in the past, but the director is Steven Spielberg, and anyone who says this is not right down his alley as far projects he prefers is crazy. The trailer had “prestige” pic written all over it and the final cut reaffirmed that, but that does mean the movie was made and release for the wrong reasons.

While War Horse is not Spielberg’s finest effort, it’s also nowhere near his worst. Admittedly, I did not expect it to be nominated for Best Picture, but it did make my honorable mention list for Top Films of 2011, so I wouldn’t say it’s totally undeserving. This is a wartime epic that tugs at our heart strings, not in a manipulative way, but in a commonplace way. The bond between animal and human might be old-fashioned and worn out to some, but Spielberg has proven that it can still be effective. Somehow, what is now old-fashioned or cliché tends to be equated with inferiority when awards become a factor. War Horse is not edgy or complex, but it is emotionally absorbing, contains memorable characters, and is breathtakingly photographed. And for the sake of argument, personally, if I had to choose one director to churn out Oscar bait related material, Spielberg wouldn’t be a bad choice.

The story takes place in 1912 Devon, England where a young boy named Albert (Jeremy Irvine) witnesses the birth of a thoroughbred foal which his father Ted (Peter Mullan) then purchases at an auction. Because he paid too much, his landlord (David Thewlis) threatens to foreclose on the family’s property if the rent is not paid. Albert trains his horse, which he names Joey, to plough despite his size, but Ted and his mother Rose (Emily Watson) are forced to sell the horse to the military. Captain Nichols (Tom Hiddleston) promises to take care of Joey as he rides him into the battles of World War I and return him afterwards. When he dies, the Germans acquire the horse. From there, we follow Joey’s journey as he pulls gun wagons, ambulances, and even becomes the companion of a French peasant girl (Celine Buckens) and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup). Eventually Albert is old enough to join the army and face the struggles of war himself. But he never stops hunting for Joey even though the possibility of locating him are slim to none.

It’s amazing how many truly good movies about horses exist, whether it be Black Beauty or Seabiscuit. There is something majestic about watching their beautiful muscular figures ride through the countryside, dodging gunfire, or parading down the street. Normally the focus is on the connection between the owner/rider and the horse. They must possess a chemistry to flourish as a unit, no matter if they’re racing or fulfilling chores. That relationship is seen in many forms throughout War Horse as Joey works in the fields, is a soldier, a pet, and a friend. But the point of view makes it intriguing. The bond is not the primary point, but rather the horse’s perspective. This, above all else, is what makes War Horse remarkable. This not a groundbreaking idea, but in following mostly Joey, we not only observe a mesmerizing adventure, but get a sense of what it is like being an animal such as this, moving from owner to owner, each of whom brings their own personalities, dreams, and tales of woe. A couple of the segments are brief and fleeting, while others are longer and increasingly profound. A horse in this predicament might have such interactions. I found this fascinating.

Michael Murpuro’s novel was also written from the point of view of the horse. This was not easy to achieve on the big screen because you don’t want the animal to speak. As a result, the human characters have the vital task of captivating the viewer almost as much as the horse. However, while we’re invested in Joey’s revolving door of owners, he is the nucleus of the film. The major flaw detractors have cited is our attachment to the characters. War Horse is not the first title to divide people in this manner. I have had debates with several moviegoers on how long it takes to develop a connection with those who inhabit the stories we watch. In my opinion, there are oodles of films which provide evidence that an impact can be left in a short amount of time. Spielberg makes sure that this is not an issue by assembling a variety of talented actors. Of course some make more of an impression than others, but months after seeing War Horse only once, I could still envision all of the characters and their highlighted moments. Although they are not allocated a full feature’s worth of time to be fleshed out, the exquisite screenplay from Lee Hall and Richard Curtis exhibits enough distinguishing traits of each to maintain the lightness of the mood, yet delve beneath the surface of each relevant person in Joey’s life. A great director can accomplish this along with the right actors.

Next to the horse, Jeremy Irvine appears on screen the most in his big screen debut. He is decidedly a mixed bag as Albert Narracott. There are a few instances where his portrayal ventures into the overly saccharine territory and in turn gives War Horse dabs of being excessively corny. To his credit, Irvine improves as the movie progresses, but he is no doubt a blemish on the production. It is easy to sympathize with him. Anybody that has owned an animal and formed a kinship with them can identify with his pain, but Irvine needs to learn more restraint and control. Peter Mullan and Emily Watson are terrific as his parents, and David Thewlis, who plays the spiteful landlord, is outstanding as usual. Elsewhere, Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch are fabulous as two relatively straightforward officers. Niels Arestrup is the stand out as the grandfather of Celine Buckens’ sweet Emilie. He delivers a stirring, earnest, and intense depiction. Eddie Marsan, Patrick Kennedy, and Toby Kebbel also hand in superlative supporting performances.

Two of the sequences that I was fond of are also the ones which incite frequent deliberation. Bother occur later in this children’s fable when Joey’s situation grows more dangerous. At one point he is cornered by a tank and has no means of escape. What Spielberg and company are attempting to convey here is how war horses were quickly becoming things of the past as World War I escalated. Around this period in history, a transition was beginning to transpire in terms of how we wage conflict on the battlefield. The antiquated means of warfare were now competing against the entrance of modern technology. Another audacious scene sees him getting caught in barb wire in no man’s land where two enemy soldiers call a truce while trying to break him free and save his life. Surrounding each scene is glorious, stunning cinematography from Janusz Kaminski. The colors and splendor that he captures in the environment, from the green meadows to the reddish-orange sunset, are jaw-dropping. I cannot say for certain if they were shot naturally or had the aid of a computer, but the effect was convincing. They resemble an eye-catching painting or a backdrop as etched by John Ford. Composing icon John Williams supplies one of 2011’s best scores to accompany the elegant camerawork, swelling and heightening our reactions at all the proper moments.

To use one of my favorite critic lines, War Horse is about the journey, not the destination. It will not take a genius to predict how the events wrap up, but that does not mean they are not touching and poignant. Anyone who is not moved a little by the ending must have a heart of stone. As with any Spielberg offering, his presentment of this point in history is accurate and powerful, if a bit gentle. The characters are compelling, sincere, and are fully realized by a largely excellent cast. The writing and direction is magnificently constructed, gliding from section to section without inducing a jarring sensation. This sweeping narrative has been adapted from page to stage to screen brilliantly, expanding upon the story exceptionally well. It evokes the trademark purity and humanism that infuses many titles in the director’s oeuvre. War Horse may be a tad too heavy on the sentimental side, but it is not afraid of that fact. Spielberg might have passed his peak, but moviegoers tend to underrate projects that are not masterpieces by those who achieved it previously. He can still craft potent entertainment as adeptly and with as much compassion as any filmmaker out there. War Horse is proof that, at age 65, he still has plenty to say and plenty ways to enchant audiences.

The Video

If War Horse did not impress you in terms of story and character, it will absolutely blow you away as far as technical specifications go. The picture transfer in this 2.40:1 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer is the definition of “wow.” Director of Photography Janusz Kaminski has been Spielberg’s collaborator for around two decades, and his prowess is beautifully represented here. The colors are rich and generally lovely during the Devon scenes, while those in the battles are fittingly dismal and depressing. The colors do not bleed and the black levels are sufficiently deep. The details are clear, the contrast is consistent, and the textures are revealed marvelously during close-ups. You will not observe any defects such as unwanted grain, artifacting, banding and so on. This is what Hi-Def was meant to look like. If one were judging audio and video, War Horse would be near the top of the list for 2012. The audio and video of the standard disc is outstanding as well, not as sharp obviously, but still bravura.

The Audio

The sound department is on par with the video as well. Whether it be the trampling of hooves, the firing of a rifle, the stalking of a tank, or any of the organic noises in nature, War Horse has a bit of everything. The versatility of the sounds will cause your speakers to keep working throughout the film. The first-rate sound design of Gary Rydstrom along with John Williams’ unforgettable score are flaunted with class by the DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 surround track. The sounds boom from your system from everywhere, creating a masterfully immersive experience. The dialogue is crisp, lucid, and understandable throughout. It is not overwhelmed by any of the action. Even the background noise such as birds, leaves rustling or inane conversation comes across as exemplary. Bass is also striking. You can feel the scenes involving machinery. This surely matches the video rating as the mix is about as perfect as possible. You receive the following audio tracks in addition to the aforementioned one: DTS-HD HR 7.1 in French and a Dolby Digital 5.1 in Spanish. You also get subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish.

The Packaging

The four-disc Blu-Ray combo pack of War Horseid distributed in a blue keep case, slightly wider than most slimline Blu-Ray cases. The cover art is the same as the post artwork, which showcases Albert and Joey. There is an embossed and textured slipsleeve cover with the same image on top of that. Inside is an insert sheet with the digital copy code and directions for using it. As with most Disney combo editions, the digital copy has files you can transfer to iTunes and Windows Media formats. As far as previews or ads, all we have to deal with is an anti-tobacco advertisement. The menu screens on each version are nice as they draw certain scenes before transitioning into feature clips. They are easy to navigate.

The Extras

BLU-RAY DISC 1

The Journey Home (19:35) – This is a neat featurette that is a roundtable with cast and crew members. You first have Steven Spielberg, producer Kathleen Kennedy, along with actors Jeremy Irvine, Tom Hiddleston, Emily Watson, and Toby Kebbell. Midway through the actor’s depart and the following people join the chat: screenwriter Richard Curtis, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, production designer Rick Carter, costume designer Joanna Johnston, and editor Michael Kahn. Obviously they discuss the film, but this is also accompanied by behind-the-scenes footage. Well worth a look.

An Extra’s Point of View (3:06) – Also not your usual bonus feature, this gives us the point of view of Martin D. Drew, all the background characters he plays, and how he prepared for them.

BLU-RAY DISC 2

A Filmmaking Journey (1:04:13) – Instead of a measly “making-of” featurette, we get this full length documentary on the conception of this project through the overall production. They cover the cast going through boot camp, filming the horses, locations & weather for outside shoots, pre-production, and much more. This is fun to watch after you’ve seen the film.

Editing & Scoring (8:35) – The title of this is self-explanatory as to the content, but this brief extra spotlights Michael Kahn and John Williams, both of whom are longtime Spielberg associates.

The Sounds of War Horse (7:13) – This might seems like something only for technical aficionados, but this touches on sound editor Gary Rydstrom’s work and how much he cares about it. This wasn’t very long, but I always find it interesting to see just what goes into mixing the sounds.

Through the Producer’s Lens (4:04) – Kathleen Kennedy displays her photographs from the set and also discusses the movie overall and what she thought of it.

DVD DISC

War Horse: The Look (6:29) – This is basically a miniaturized version of the documentary above. We briefly graze upon the various aspects of the production like locations, costumes, productions design, and so on. I would just settle for the documentary, but this is here if you’re curious.

The Film: 9.0/10.0
The Video: 10.0/10.0
The Audio: 10.0/10.0
The Packaging: 9.0/10.0
The Extras: 8.5/10.0

The 411: Steven Spielberg's War Horse was released in tandem with The Adventures of Tintin. Not the first time the legendary director has released films this way (Jurassic Park/Schindler's List or War of the Worlds/Munich). He likes to combine crowd pleasers with something more serious. War Horse is the latter, and is a wonderful motion picture filled with extraordinary visuals, a heartfelt cast, and an affecting story from a unique point of view with a message everyone can understand. After the play obtained buzz via Tony nods, prices for tickets skyrocketed and thus I have not yet been able to see it though I hoped to prior to writing this review. I have seen clips, and it seems inventive and engrossing, so here's hoping I can see it someday soon. I wholly recommend the film though. This is a Blu-Ray release that will show what makes the format great. The picture and sound rendering is near faultless, worth the money alone. There are decent amount of extras to be found here, but no commentary sadly. Still, this is a packed set for a really good movie. I think most of the time people already know if they want to see a "horse movie," but even if you're skeptical, give this one a shot.
411 Elite Award
Final Score:  9.0   [  Amazing ]  legend

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