This Oscar season, PG-13 for Ugly Cast has highlighted a handful of Movie Things We Loved, with no pretense of objectivity or internal consistency. But as you may have noticed, Oscar season kinda ended, so we’re here to wrap things up.
It’s time to come clean.
It’s past time, really. In December, War Horse came out; in January, I saw it; in February, it went winless at the Oscars; and now it’s March, and movie watchers have turned their gaze from last year’s best to this year’s box office. (How much will Hunger Games make? How much will John Carter lose? How much do you care?)
I’m hoping against hope that the backlash has subsided, that the dead War Horse has taken its last of its many beatings. Critics have dismissed it as sentimental. They’ve scoffed at the idea of adapting a play whose major innovation (an elegantly staged wicker horse) would make no sense in film. They’ve argued that in a movie year already suffocating under the smog of nostalgia, War Horse was just another log for the fire. And they’ve mocked the name – which, to be fair, doesn’t require much more than saying it aloud.
I know that criticisms like those don’t subside. They settle into common wisdom. Though its reviews were moderately positive, it may be too late for War Horse to join the pantheon of Spielberg’s best grown-up films, alongside Munich, Saving Private Ryan, and Schindler’s List. That battle has already been fought, and War Horse, it seems, has lost. Even so, I’m going to finally declare what I’ve been muttering through gritted teeth ever since the mockery began: War Horse was my favorite movie of 2011.
I loved the story. War Horse follows a thoroughbred named Joey as World War I tosses him back and forth across the front lines, from one human guardian to the next: a British officer, a German stable boy, an old Frenchman and his orphaned granddaughter. Each time the setting changes, the script affords us swift insight – in just a few lines of dialogue, we learn who our new protagonists are, how they relate to each other, where they find happiness, what the war stands to steal from them.
I loved the visuals, too, from the pastoral British countryside to the inhuman landscape of No Man’s Land. The titular horse, too, exerts a magnetic pull. Every character seems drawn to him, as a (none-too-subtle) symbol of humanity and beauty in a war that increasingly transformed civilians into soldiers, and soldiers into flesh. As the film unfolds, we realize how the role of horses changes, from steeds worthy of riding into battle, to animals good only for pulling an ambulance, to an expendable form of living artillery.
Of all the charges against War Horse, one rings truest and most absurd: That it’s sentimental. Of course it is. Good stories are sentimental. Humans are sentimental. When did sentimentality start carrying such a stigma?
The fact is, War Horse did well enough – it made money, won a few minor awards – in spite of the sneering, the doubting, the imposing curvature of all those skeptically arched eyebrows. For a movie so plainly ambitious, and a director so monumentally famous, that level of success registers as “below expectations.” But I’ll add to its moderate success this last faint accolade: that War Horse was PG-13 for Ugly Cast’s favorite movie of 2011.