Tuesday, January 10, 2012

War Horse and Tintin

             A One-Two Punch But a Bit Short of a Knockout
                          Review by Ken Burke
                                                                                      War Horse

Acclaimed as a children’s book with adult implications and as a stage play, this Spielberg adaptation is lush to see but still too adolescent in tone to be effective drama.

Here’s an example of something originally written for kids that still functions at that level but works for all ages as a simple adventure story with crafty, delightful characters.
            An old adage says that brevity is the soul of wit. If this is true (and I think that it generally is, although I love a good “shaggy dog” story where the punch line of a looong joke is some stupid, unexpected payoff), then you must know from my previous reviews that I have no soul and precious little wit (depending on your opinion of my incessant puns).  With that in mind, I’m going to try something new with this dual review of the latest Spielberg offerings, the new being a briefer analysis than usual, both because it’s a challenge to me to get it said in less space and, while I admire the technical virtuosity of these films, I really don’t think, short of a column inch requirement for a standard newspaper or magazine piece, that there’s much that needs to be said about either of them, even as they continue to rake in the bucks, the respect of the Hollywood establishment, and some awards considerations.  So, with all that in mind, we’re off to the races.

            We’ll start with the horse races, given that Joey, our equine lead in War Horse, is bred to be a runner rather than a plow or army animal.  When stubborn Devon (England) farmer Ted Narracot (Peter Mullan) insists on buying him anyway to aid the family in their desperate early 20th century need to turn a successful crop and pay the rent on the land, everyone (including wife Rose [Emily Watson]) thinks Ted is just a drunken idiot (especially because he outbid his own landlord to buy the horse), all except for his son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), who’s adored Joey ever since he saw the colt’s birth.  Sure enough, Joey and Albert save the day, providing much needed uplift for this struggling rural community, as they grind through a ridiculously rocky field to prepare it for planting.  Unfortunately, when the rains that softened the ground for the plowing come back in greater force at harvest time they demolish the abundant turnip crop so Joey finds himself being sold to the military to aid the newly-imposed war effort as all hell breaks loose in Europe in 1914.  Unfortunately, the English cavalry isn’t able to rise to the occasion when attacking Germans in France as successfully as Albert and Joey were able to conquer the plowed field, leaving a multitude of horses and riders dead at the hands of modern weapons such as machine guns that quickly make mounted soldiers into a pile of defeated corpses.

            From his initial capture by the Germans, Joey’s adventures take him—and his newly-acquired horsemate friend, Topthorn—to ambulance-hauling duty, escape via young deserting German brothers, temporary rescue by a kindly French farmer (Niels Arestrup) and his granddaughter Emilie (Celine Buckens), recapturing by the Germans where he’s put to work hauling heavy artillery until 1918, another escape (much more daring this time across an active battlefield of trench warfare), and final reconciliation with Albert (now old enough to be a wounded soldier) prior to recovery from war injuries and return home to bucolic Devon.  This tale has entranced numerous critics, led to many award predictions and nominations (including the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture—Drama and Best Original Score—Motion Picture [for John Williams, as much of a Hollywood institution as Spielberg]), decent but not yet outstanding box office, and the continued admiration of those who feel that Spielberg is the reincarnated Walt Disney where emotion-stirring family movies are concerned.  I’ll agree that War Horse runs the emotions through a blender, has some Oscar-worthy cinematography, especially in that brutal final battle scene where Joey becomes entangled in life-threatening barbed wire, and is a well-crafted story of the ultimate triumph of human decency (and horse decency ... too … I guess—I somehow feel like I’m channeling aspiring screenwriter Donald Kaufman from Adaptation [Spike Jonze, 2002]; if you don’t know that film, please look it up, it would take too long to explain the reference) over the worst conditions that nature and society conspire to challenge us with.  Not that there’s anything wrong with any of that, especially the battlefield cinematography, but for me there’s just too much easy sentiment, too much animal brilliance (I haven’t seen a mammal since Lassie that understands complete English sentences as well as Joey does; he’s also very adept at teaching new tricks to Topthorn as their friendship grows, leaving the impression that Joey should be planning these battles rather than the humans who seem to know only run-straight-into-enemy-fire tactics), and too much of a tendency to overuse the most dramatic possibilities of that much-praised cinematography (when Albert and Joey come home to Mama Rose, clutching the talismanic remnant of Papa Ted’s regiment flag from his days in the harsh Boer War, the background sky behind her literally reminded me of the climax of the first act of Gone with the Wind; I fully expected her to wave a turnip in one hand and some hay in the other while proclaiming “As God as my witness, we’ll never go hungry again!”).

            While making reference to film classics I might as well mention (as others have) the resemblance of aspects of this production to some of the work of John Ford (not so much the westerns except for the sweeping landscape shots), particularly the human dramas of decent, hard-working folks trying to rise above the travails of life’s miseries, as with his Best Director Oscar-winning The Grapes of Wrath (1940, a noble film about struggling Oklahoma migrant workers) and Best Picture and Director Oscar-winning How Green Was My Valley (1941, a noble film about struggling Welsh coal miners—but still, for me, nowhere near the ground-breaking achievements that same year of…you guessed it … Orson’s Welles’s Citizen Kane).  Another apt comparison would be to another timeless classic, Jean Renoir’s La grande illusion (1937), also about the unnecessary horrors of war and the need for moral, ethical choices to overcome the ingrained propaganda of demonizing the other combatants as a soulless enemy (even if the decision-makers on either side could easily be accused of such failures).  What Renoir evokes throughout his own WW I story of French POW’s and their determined escape attempts from German prisons is matched by Spielberg only in the quiet barbwire rescue scene where lone English and German soldiers carefully and successfully free Joey from his entanglement, then choose who gets the horse by a gentlemanly coin toss with no retaliations or sneak attacks to ruin the truce. 

            It’s a touching scene for all involved (including cynical me), elevating this story above its occasional Old Yeller (Robert Stevenson, 1957)-like tear-jerker roots of tragedy involving pets, as well as its genesis as a 1982 British children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo (with some likely inspiration also from the more adult 2007 adaptation into a play by Nick Stafford).  I know War Horse was never intended to be a thought-provoking challenge like Equus (Sidney Lumet, 1977) and I don’t fault it for being so effectively family-friendly, but for all of the reasons of the allusions to other films cited above it just came across as technically superb warmed-over porridge for me, but I won’t be surprised if it manages some Oscar nominations as well as a win or two in the technical categories because this is the kind of grand spectacle that the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences voters love to celebrate (as with last year’s The King’s Speech [Tom Hooper] and other similar “prestige pictures” although sometimes prestige will be upset by intensity as with 2007 where Atonement [Joe Wright], another well-crafted heartbreaker film set in wartime Britain—WW II this time—was bested for Best Picture by the Coen brothers’ grisly No Country for Old Men).

            Where Spielberg seems likely to compete for a more consumer-aware Oscar (or to at least give Rango [Gore Verbinski] a strong run for its money) is in the Best Animated Feature category for The Adventures of Tintin.  This one also bounces us around Europe, and northern Africa, from England to Morocco and some ocean locations as well where our youthful and intrepid detective seeks the answer to a confounding mystery.  Tintin also has its roots in juvenile literature, the comic book adventures created by Belgian artist Georges Remi (pen name Hergé) of a fearless young (age unclear, seems to be a teenager but a financially-independent one if so) reporter-adventurer (with that same goofy upsweep hairdo as the Saturday Night Live Ed Grimley character that I referenced in my additions to the Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy review) and his dog, Snowy, who may be even smarter and more literate than Joey the war horse.  Although there were originally live actors behind the motion-capture digitally-enhanced images that make it to the screen, what we get in the fantastic final product is a visual hybrid of photography enhanced through computer graphics and animation (yielding a world where everyone but Tintin humorously has a nose the size of a small squash) as well as gravity-defying breakneck action that is more at home in a Wile E. Coyote-Roadrunner cartoon than even in Spielberg’s previous Indiana Jones wild ride adventures (1981, 1984, 1989, 2008). 

            Following an active beginning with flatter animation opening credits, reminiscent of the bouncy ones in the old Pink Panther movies, the pace of the action in Tintin (also produced by Spielberg along with Gollum motion-capture expert Peter Jackson, and a host of others) has to be seen to be believed, preferably in 3-D where the full range in exquisite depth of the recreated environment has been meticulously rendered in every shot, so effectively in closeups that the textures constantly give you perceptual shifts from the appearance of straight photography to something that’s beyond real but not so removed from reality as to look like the intentionally exaggerated cartoons you find in this year’s other major animated award contenders Rango and Cars 2 (John Lasseter, Brad Lewis).  Although, regarding the illusion of pictorial reality, there’s a nice in-joke toward the start of the film where Tintin is sketched by a sidewalk caricaturist whose rendering of the more rounded version of our hero in this film is flattened out to the cartoon version familiar to generations of European children.  Beyond such tributes to Tintin’s creator, though, the imagery in this film represents the finest available technological advancements in merging camera and computer to produce a result that’s just fantastical enough to be removed from the kinds of reality-anchored action extravagance that you’d expect in Vin Diesel’s Fast and Furious films (including this year’s Fast Five [Justin Lin]) so that the images can soar in ways that would be horribly expensive, dangerous, and implausible with live action, even computer-enhanced live action (although every time we realize the restrictions that actual photography places on live actors, even the ones who are held up by cables in front of green screens, we have to once again give high marks—for foolhardiness if nothing else—to Tom Cruise for those amazing, insurance-defying stunts he insisted on doing while dangling from the world’s tallest building in Dubai for Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol [Brad Bird]).  The atmospheric look of foggy London streets, the reflections in glass, bubbles on the undulating surfaces of water, the rolling in of a thunderstorm, along with skin and hair textures that would also seem to be an impossible mission to render in such great detail combine to produce a consistently fascinating result that adds to Spielberg’s vast collection of triumphs in a manner that’s more successful for me than what he accomplishes in the equally high-tech but live-action War Horse.

            What may be the biggest success of all in Tintin is how engaging these visually-enhanced characters are, especially when we realize that they barely slow down long enough for us to look at them as they race over land and sea to reconstruct a treasure map and locate vast riches long lost by ancestors of two of our main characters.  Certainly, effective voice work by all involved helps bring this animated cast to life, with the pack led by Tintin’s excited confidence well delivered by Jamie Bell, the drunken haze of determination embodied nicely by Gollum/King Kong/Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt) smart chimp Caesar motion-capture actor Andy Serkis for Tintin’s human companion Captain Haddock, and the sinister snarls from current James Bond and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (David Fincher) star Daniel Craig as the greedy but crafty villain Sakharine (although the goofy chatter from clumsy Scotland Yard detectives Thompson and Thompson, voiced by Nick Frost and Simon Pegg—in a far cry from his nervous technical wizard role in M:I 4—adds great humor as well).  All in all, with the great variety of camera angles that constantly move us energetically through the spatial locations (even when the characters are relatively still for a change), the rather simple but driving plot that never allows you the opportunity to fixate on any one moment before you’re whisked off to ten more, and the engaging vocalizations largely from actors not so well known to American audiences that allow us to ignore recognition (It’s Johnny Depp!  It’s Michael Caine!) but appreciate effective characterization, Tintin accomplishes its entertaining intentions with few distractions (most of them race by so fast that you wouldn’t have a chance to notice them anyway).  This movie even has a character get shot dead with no mistaken assumptions or reappearance (as in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy [Tomas Alfredson]).  He’s just dead, which is more than we might expect from an animated film intended primary to appeal to kids yet one with plenty of satisfaction for adults even if you don’t go as a baby sitter but just have an enjoyable experience for yourself.

            As Captain Haddock notes, “There are worse things than sobering up” (even though he has to endure this latter burden when the Sahara finally dries him out) and there are certainly worse ways to spend your time than watching either of these latest finely crafted presentations from Steven Spielberg.  Depending on your tastes and mood, either of them could be a successful investment for you, but I was more enthralled with Tintin than War Horse, possibly because I found the combination of The Black Stallion (Carroll Ballard, 1979) and Saving Private Ryan (Spielberg, 1998) in the boy-gets-horse, boy-loses-horse, boy-gets-horse again story to be too familiar and less engaging, even on a simple level, than the Indiana Jones on Steroids rush that I got from the never-ending Adventures of Tintin.  If nothing else, I’d say go with Tintin now while you can see its motion-capture in captivating 3-D because War Horse will still look fine later on DVD if seen on a decent size flat screen … if you really must see it.  (Sorry, Steven, but even you can’t win ‘em all—although you always come pretty damn close.)

            (On the other hand, I didn’t come so close to this review being as short or quick to write as I intended, but I’ll admit that Spielberg films can be hard to make quick comments on, no matter their degree of success, because there’s always so much to consider, even when you might initially think otherwise. I’ll try an actual short review again some other time, but without an editor constantly looking over my shoulder I wouldn’t bet much on a mission accomplished result, unless Tintin drops by and whisks me off on a can’t-wait adventure.)

            If you’d like to explore more on War Horse here are some recommended links:

            If you’d like to explore more on The Adventures of Tintin here are some recommended links:

We encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.  You’ll also see our general Spoiler Alert warning that reminds you we’ll be discussing whatever plot details are needed for our comments so please be aware of this when reading any of our reviews and be aware of our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our control.

Please note that to Post a Comment you need to either have a Google account (which you can easily get at https://accounts.google.com/NewAccount if you need to sign up) or other sign-in identification from the pull-down menu below before you preview or post.

No comments:

Post a Comment