Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Reverend's Reviews: War is a Zoo

I'm a sucker for movies about animals (my all-time favorite film is the often reviled, 1967 musical Doctor Dolittle) and am all for family films. So one would think I'd love We Bought a Zooand War Horse,both out today on DVD and Blu-ray. I was looking forward to both prior to their theatrical release last Christmas but, while I caught the latter then, director Cameron Crowe's zoo story got away from me until now.

Adapted from the autobiographical book by Benjamin Mee (who is portrayed in the film by Ben Affleck's bff, Matt Damon), it recounts Mee's rather impulsive decision to buy a country house with a dilapidated menagerie of wild animals attached to it. He and his two children are grieving the recent death of their wife and mother, and they find renewed purpose and unity as a family in their efforts to rehabilitate the zoo. They are aided by Scarlett Johansson as an idealistic keeper, Thomas Haden Church as Mee's investment-broker brother and Patrick Fugit, former teen star of Crowe's acclaimed Almost Famous, as another animal handler. Opposing the zoo crew's mission, however, is an inexplicably cranky county inspector played by the always enjoyable John Michael Higgins, veteran of numerous Christopher Guest movies and current co-star on Fran Drescher's gay-themed sitcom, Happily Divorced.

We Bought a Zoo is life- and family-affirming and spotlights an impressive assortment of birds and beasts. More religious or philosophical viewers can also decipher a number of spiritual themes in the film, including the triumph of light over darkness, growing through loss and sacrifice, and how human beings and animals share in God's wonderful creation. (A companion guide created by Allied Faith & Family that highlights this content can be accessed here.) Unfortunately, the movie suffers from a case of schizophrenia; some of it is waaay too simple, cutesy and/or sappy for adults, while other scenes are too intense and adult for children. This likely explains why the film wasn't a bigger hit at the box office, despite its promising premise.


Steven Spielberg's War Horse is similarly handicapped... though thankfully no horses died during filming, unlike the recently (and deservedly) cancelled TV series Luck. Despite earning $70 million+ in the US as well as a number of Oscar nominations (the most deserving of which was for Janusz Kaminski's stunning cinematography, which lost to the equally stunning Hugo), War Horse is too long and violent for kids and too cloyingly sentimental for many adult viewers.

What is a simple, World War I-era tale of a boy and his horse on the page and stage becomes bloated in Spielberg & Co.'s hands. Walt Disney likely could have produced an equally lovely, more economical version of the story in the 1960's. Here, we get a truly affecting central story padded to the 2 1/2 hour mark by three excessive, and excessively preachy, sequences involving extraneous characters that drive home the point ad nauseum about how awful war is to man and beast alike. War Horse would have been much more successful if it focused simply on the painful separation of Joey, the title steed, from the young man, Albert (played by the pretty but dull Jeremy Irvine), who trained Joey and eventually enlists in the military to search for him.

War Horse does benefit from an excellent supporting cast that includes Emily Watson as Albert's mum, Tom Hiddleston (better known as the conniving Loki in Thor and next month's The Avengers), and up-and-comer Benedict Cumberbatch, who will play a key villain in the upcoming Star Trek sequel. Technically, too, the movie bears the trademark Spielberg stamp of excellence. It is also being honored with a prestigious Christopher Award, given by a Catholic order to films that uphold ideals and values. This makes it all the more unfortunate that most children and adolescents will likely consider War Horse the unbearable antithesis of The Hunger Games.

Reverend's Ratings:
We Bought a Zoo: C
War Horse: B-

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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