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'War Horse' beautifully demonstrates the bond between pet and owner

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Nick Spake

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Posted: Friday, December 23, 2011 2:00 pm

Sometimes I think we forget just how great Steven Spielberg is. Granted, he may occasionally jump the shark and have Indiana Jones confront aliens or have the government attempt to thwart E.T. with walky-talkies. When Spielberg hits it out of the park though, pure cinematic enlightenment is achieved. Within the course of just one week Spielberg has granted audiences two of the year's most superlative entertainments. In "The Adventures of Tintin" he tapped into his younger self and produced a thrill ride reminiscent of Indiana Jones. Spielberg's second feature of the month, "War Horse," is nothing short of a miracle of a motion picture.

The film begins on the brink of World War II, a period Spielberg has always been fascinated by as exemplified through "Saving Private Ryan," "Schindler's List," and others. A brown horse is born and is eventually separated from its mother to be sold at auction. The horse is purchased by Ted Narracott, an alcoholic farmer on the verge of loosing his land, played by Peter Mullan. Everyone tells Ted that he has overspent on such a small horse, especially his wife, played by Emily Watson. Nevertheless, the farmer stands by his belief that the horse will earn its keep. He entrusts the horse's training to his teenage son, Albert, played by Jeremy Irvine, who names the animal Joey.

The first act of "War Horse" is the classic tale about a boy and his horse, which it tells miraculously well. I've seen over a dozen movies about people and their horses, dogs, dolphins, whales, dragons, and so on. But few have been as sincere and touching as Albert and Joey's connection. The performances by both Irvine and the horse powerfully capture the genuine rapport that a person can share with an animal. As someone who once had a Labrador, I know that a truly special animal is more than a pet to its owner. It's a friend you can rely on. "War Horse" beautifully demonstrates this bond.

At a certain point you almost expect "War Horse" to go down the "Secretariat" route and have the struggling family enter Joey in a race. Matters take an interesting turn after the first hour mark, however, as World War II finally hits.

Unable to pay off his debts, Ted is forced to sell Joey to the Calvary. Throughout the course of the War, Joey finds himself in the care of several different owners, including a British Captain, two runaway soldiers, and a grandfather and his granddaughter. It's almost like a series of great short stories fluidly tied together. At the center of each of them is Joey in a pivotal role. This is nothing less than an imaginative feat of storytelling on behalf of screenwriters Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, as well as Michael Morpurgo who wrote the original novel.

It feels like I've been talking a lot about animals in my reviews lately, such as the scene-stealing dog in "The Artist." Joey, who was portrayed by 14 different horses throughout shooting the film, may very well be the most daring and courageous animal star in the history of live-action pictures. He even outshines Seabiscuit from the wonderful Gary Ross film. This is Joey's movie as we see the horrors of war through his eyes as he overcomes impossible obstacles. Joey develops a real personality and becomes one of the year's most compelling heroes. The filmmakers brilliantly accomplish this by relying on Joey's reactions to circumstances rather than simplifying him to a talking Disney cartoon. They even manage to incorporate an effective friendship between Joey and a black horse, which overcomes potential corniness with subtlety and warmth.

For the 13th time Spielberg teams up with Academy Award-winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who fuels the war scenes with unruly excitement. There's a remarkable shot revealing the aftermath of a battle that evokes a famous scene from "Gone With the Wind." Kaminski ingeniously incorporates a spinning windmill into a haunting scene in which two characters meet their demise. Watching Joey attempt to survive a battlefield as sheer chaos erupts is particularly an exhilarating sight to observe.

I loved just about everything regarding "War Horse," from John William's epic musical score to the intense sound design by Gary Rydstrom. Spielberg has made his finest film of the 21st century, which is very impressive given the company of "Munich," "Minority Report," and the underrated "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence." Like in many of his greatest movies, Spielberg isn't afraid to integrate a fair deal of sentimentality into "War Horse." There are heartfelt moments in the film that might have some audiences rolling their eyes. But like the ending of "E.T.," those moments are well earned and provide the backbone of one of the finest final 30 minutes of any movie you'll ever see. In short, this is filmmaking at its finest.

• Nick Spake is a student at Arizona State University. He has been working as a film critic for five years, reviewing movies on his website, NICKPICKSFLICKS.com. Reach him at nspake@asu.edu.

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