War Horse and Real Steel: Steve’s Surprising Recommendation

This weekend I watched two movies with connections to Steven Spielberg. The first was the Spielberg-directed War Horse, which was nominated for Best Picture, along with five other Oscar nominations. The second was Real Steel, a movie about boxing robots, for which Spielberg was an executive producer. It did receive one Oscar nomination for Visual Effects. I’m not a huge Spielberg fan. I have liked, but not loved, most of his movies. My favorites all date from the early 80’s (Raiders, E.T., The Color Purple). The last one that I really liked was Minority Report from a decade ago. I rented War Horse because I’m somewhat obsessive about seeing all the movies that are nominated for Best Picture. I was not expecting to be blown away by War Horse, but given its pedigree I figured I would at least enjoy it, and that is just how it turned out. Good movie, but not great. Deserving of its Best Picture nom? I can think of about twenty films that were more deserving, but War Horse has enough going for it to give it a fairly strong recommendation. My son requested that we rent Real Steel. The trailer made it look fairly entertaining, but, if I wasn’t expecting much from War Horse, I was expecting even less from Real Steel. I just hoped it wouldn’t turn out to be a waste of two hours. It most certainly wasn’t a waste of time. I am quite surprised to report that I enjoyed Real Steel much more than War Horse!

The key word there is “enjoyed.” One could argue that War Horse is a “better” movie in many respects (and I would grant many of those arguments), but I found Real Steel to be more enjoyable, more fun, and more moving. I shed a few tears during War Horse, but there were more tears flowing more often during Real Steel. I guess I’m more of a sucker for father/son movies than I am for horse movies, but, apart from my emotional response, I think that does get at the heart of why Real Steel is a more effective movie than War Horse. Both movies are shamelessly tearjerkers. Both are manipulative, but aren’t all movies manipulative in some way? Isn’t that the point of making a movie? Both are hopelessly cliched much of the time. Both depend on ridiculous plot-points. Both lead to inevitable endings (although there is a bit of a surprise in Real Steel’s conclusion.) Most importantly, both struggle with the fact that the title “character” is non-human, but the important difference is that Real Steel isn’t actually about the robot, it is about a father/son relationship, whereas War Horse really is about the horse. Alright, you could claim that it is about the relationship between the farm-boy Albert and his horse Joey, but that doesn’t change the fact that half of that relationship is animal rather than human. I know some folks really love their animals, but they are still animals and that limits the emotional impact of a movie. Besides, Albert and Joey are separated for over half the movie and the story follows Joey to war, which, for me, deadened the movie’s emotional impact. The story became so episodic that I felt disconnected from it. (It also seemed over-long at two and a half hours.)

In our blog description, we say that the most important element of a movie is its ability to tell a story and to create relationships that we care about. This is where Real Steel beats out War Horse. Sure, War Horse is a good looking movie, but its story-telling is weak. I didn’t really care if Albert and Joey got back together, although I knew they would. (That is not a spoiler, that is the inevitable ending I mentioned earlier.) On the other hand, I did care about Charlie and Max, the father and son, in Real Steel. Their story drew me in. Sure, it’s a story that’s been told many times before, the errant father who eventually sees the errors of his ways, but it is a storyline that still works for me and at least it gives a sense of hope, which our world desperately needs. That, in a nutshell, is why I rank Real Steel higher than War Horse.

In closing, I’ll offer a few particulars about each movie. As I’ve said, War Horse is a good looking movie. The cinematography is often beautiful. The war scenes are generally effectively filmed. Fortunately, Spielberg avoids an overuse of back-lighting. Overall, it felt like an old fashioned, Disney animal movie. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not necessarily a good thing either. Overall, the acting was good, but there was precious little in the way of great performances. Unfortunately, Jeremy Irvine was in the good, not great category, as Albert, which may not have been enough in such a key role. I did especially enjoy Emily Watson as Albert’s mother and Niels Arestrup as French grandfather. Given the episodic nature of the story, most of the other actors had little to work with. One annoying aspect of the movie was the Germans and French who spoke in English with their national accents. I’m not sure that having them speak in German and French with subtitles would have resolved the issue given the attempt to make this a family film. In that regard, the violence of the war scenes is kept to a minimum, but is still probably too much for younger children. Finally, yes, the horses look good. Horses are, after all, magnificent creatures. Most everyone in the movie, except for a few cold-hearted military officers, recognize how grand Joey is. Spielberg and his team do all they can to give Joey a strong sense of personality. They are fairly successful, but Joey is not Mr. Ed. I will mention, on behalf of my co-blogger Bill, who loves savior motifs in movies, that there is one scene where Joey “volunteers” himself in the place of another horse. I am sure that this scene makes some folks misty-eyed. It made me chuckle.

Although, I’ve said that it is in the story that Real Steel beats out War Horse, I would argue that it is also a good looking movie in its own way. The cinematography may not be as grand, but it works well. The opening sequence where Charlie drives up to a fair with the camera catching the reflection of the carnival lights in the windshield of his truck is as effective as anything in War Horse. The various underground arenas where the robots fight are well designed, each with a unique feel. The fight scenes themselves really aren’t all that special. How much can we be expected to care about robots beating on each other? But, the movie isn’t really about the robots anyway. I greatly enjoyed Hugh Jackman as Charlie. I join my son in saying that we are looking forward to seeing him in Les Miz later this year. Dakota Goyo brought great enthusiasm to the role of Max. Many of the other roles were cliched, but the performances still served the story well. In addition to the father/son storyline that I greatly enjoyed, the movie also offers the classic sports underdog motif. This movie is a surprise winner!

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