Would you believe me if I told you that 'War Horse' isn't really about a horse at all? I know, that would be silly right? Well, to an extent it's true. 'War Horse' follows the adventures of a young thoroughbred named Joey, but he acts as a galloping MacGuffin. Joey's life intersects with a variety of individuals during the long years of the war. The movie really isn't about Joey, it's about the characters who we come into contact with along the way. Each new character provides an encapsulated vignette where we get to see exactly how the war is affecting them.
Joey starts out his storied life as a mistake. Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) is a drunkard who usually lets his pride get in the way of his common sense. The Narracott family is borderline destitute, but that doesn't stop Ted from purchasing a thoroughbred horse at the local auction just to spite his own landlord. Ted needed a plow horse and instead has ended up with a fine horse that can't do much work. His son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) takes on the task of teaching Joey how to work on the farm. A few montages later and we're treated to the first of many Spielbergian scenes where drama oozes from the screen as John Williams' score swells to crescendo. Joey plows the impossible field. There's something about this horse. Oh yes, he's very special indeed.
After the Narracott farm takes a turn for the worse, Ted is forced to sell Joey to the army in order to save the family farm. And so begins the journey of Joey. He encounters a varied cast of characters as he journeys through the war. A young officer by the name of Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) is the first person to care for Joey. From there Joey crosses paths with two young, defecting German soldiers, an adolescent French girl and her withered grandfather, a heart-of-gold German animal handler, and so on.
Joey's journeys provide an insight into the war and hot it affected everyone. There's a line that is repeated a few times, "The war took everything from everyone." As Joey changes hands from one person to another we get to see how people lost everything, but somehow gained something by being with Joey if only for a brief moment.
Based on the novel written by Michael Morpurgo (which was also adapted into a stage play), 'War Horse' can be overly sentimental at times. With its striking, lush visuals and swelling score, 'War Horse' exudes Spielberg's influence from every corner of the movie. Depending on your views, this may be a good or bad thing. It's easy to notice when Spielberg is trying to tap into your emotions. The movie is carefully calculated to illicit some kind of emotion from you. Courageous animal stories are a gold mine when it comes to extracting emotions from audiences. How many news stories have we heard about brave dogs that somehow walk hundreds of miles just to make it home, and how many times have we let out that all-too-familiar "Awwwh," when we find out that everything happened perfectly and that owner and dog were reunited? The story of a plucky animal will always tug at the heart strings.
It's easy to fall in love with Joey, but he isn't the real reason we're watching the movie. He's only a means to an end. A way for us to feel first hand the effects of the war on both sides. Usually, in war movies, depending on which country is making the movie, one side is predominantly evil while the other side is righteously good. Here we get to see that there were decent humans on both sides.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This Touchstone/DreamWorks release has been packaged in a 4-Disc Combo Pack. Two of the discs are 50GB Blu-ray Discs. One is for the feature film while the other contains the special features. There are also separate discs for the Digital Copy and the DVD. They've all been packaged in a slightly oversized Blu-ray keepcase. It's labeled as being a region free release.
Janusz Kaminski's Oscar-nominated cinematography shines in this 1080p release of the movie. With the direction of Spielberg, Kaminski is a master at framing a scene like a piece of artwork. There are many times in the movie – whether it be gazing over the lush rolling hills of the English countryside or taking in the bleak but somehow beautiful war-scapes – that you could pause and print out that screenshot as a still photo and hang it on your wall. This is a beautifully photographed film, made all the better by being presented in high definition.
Detail is utterly superb. The horses, of which there are many, are provided ample detail. The detail is important here, because it's crucial to the story that this once regal animal is brought to the lowliest of places by the time the war has ended. What once was a well brushed coat and mane has now become matted with mud, soot, and blood. It's easy to see the scrapes and cuts which gradually appear on Joey's body as he's asked to do all sorts of strenuous jobs. His mane becomes knotted and packed with mud. The detail of the movie and its photography are easily seen in HD. There's one shot, where the entire thing is filmed as a reflection in Joey's eye, which really showcases the true beauty of this Blu-ray.
There are a few soft shots during the war, but if I'm not mistaken they're intentional. Smoke, haze and gas fills the air constantly. There's no reason why every shot should be crystal clear. This is a dirty, grimy war and the wide shots reflect that perfectly. I didn't notice any malicious artifacts either. No banding, aliasing, or anything else that would detract from viewing. Blacks are superbly delineated. Shadows accentuate instead of alienate. All in all, this is demo-quality viewing.
It's pretty hard to top the sheer force packed into 'War Horse's thumping DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 audio mix. This is a mix which, while full of nuanced ambient sound, is also as raucous and pounding as any other war movie that has come before it. Not to mention John Williams' sweeping score which fills every nook and cranny of the sound stage.
LFE, as you may have imagined, is thunderous. From the deafening hoof beats of hundreds of cavalry descending on their enemies to the deep boom of the German big guns, the sub-woofer works overtime here to provide a realistic sounding cinematic war. It isn't all guns and bombs though. There are times where the movie settles down and the extra channels pick up subtle bugs and birds making themselves known in nearby woods and fields. The chatter of an entire town during the horse auction is captured perfectly here. The side speakers feature men talking about the horse off screen as Tom contemplates buying it. The surround sound is so good here that you can hear the trailing yells of a senior officer as he rides out of frame, but he's still yelling at his cavalry to mount their horses.
Dialogue is always clear and intelligible even though there are a variety of accents on display here. Directionality works absolutely flawlessly. Like the video presentation, this audio is demo-worthy through and through.
You can almost feel 'War Horse' tapping its hoof on the door to your heart, begging to be let in. It's an easy film to sit back and watch. You may even feel slight tinges of emotion as you watch Joey journey through the land of World War I. It's a perfectly competent movie that at times seems to be trying a bit too hard, but isn't that often the Spielberg way? With stellar sound and visuals this one comes recommended to anyone who is looking for an easily enjoyable movie that looks and sounds great on Blu-ray.