Video Verdict: ‘War Horse,’ ‘We Bought a Zoo’

Albert (Jeremy Irvine) and his horse Joey form a remarkable bond in “War Horse.” The drama, by director Steven Spielberg, earned six Academy Awards nominations, including one for best picture.

This week’s home video releases include a terrific family film starring Matt Damon, and a Steven Spielberg drama that earned six Oscar nominations.

War Horse

3½ stars (out of four)
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of war violence
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray, digital download and on demand

Director Steven Spielberg had a big year in 2011. Not only did he release his first animated movie, “The Adventures of Tintin,” he made this outstanding drama about the bonds that form between man and animal. Based on the children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo, the film tells of a thoroughbred colt raised by an English teen named Albert (Jeremy Irvine).

Albert names the horse Joey and spends most of his waking moments with the powerful and beautiful animal. Alas, the two are separated when Albert’s father sells Joey to an English military officer as World War I is getting underway. The film then tracks Joey as he stumbles through an incredible series of events that put him right in the heart of the military conflict. Through all of this, Albert retains hope that he may one day be reunited with his beloved animal.

Spielberg’s outstanding direction means “Warhorse” will likely be remembered as one of the great animal films of all time. When watching, one can’t help but think of movies like “Old Yeller,” “Babe” and “Seabiscuit,” and – considering the quality of those features – that’s a keen compliment.

Although the inspiration for “Warhorse” was a children’s book, Spielberg’s movie isn’t childlike. Rather, it’s a serious drama boasting powerfully rendered, realistic battle sequences. That doesn’t mean youngsters should stay away, but it does mean parents must exercise caution. There are a handful of sequences that can be difficult to watch because they accurately depict the brutality of war.

Despite the authenticity, “War Horse” is not a redo of “Saving Private Ryan” or a commentary on why we fight. Rather, it’s a meditation on the relationship between man, animals and the interactions we share. Irvine is wonderful in the lead human role, and he gets strong support from Peter Mullan and Emily Watson, who play Albert’s parents.

Even more impressive than the human performances is the work by the equine stars. Spielberg did a wonderful job catching his horses on camera, and that’s one reason the film earned six Oscar nominations, including nods for cinematography and best picture.

The movie is available as part of multiple home video releases, including a four-disc combo pack with DVD, Blu-ray and digital copies of the feature. Extras vary.

We Bought a Zoo

3½ stars
Rated PG for language and some thematic elements
20th Century Fox
Available on: DVD, Blu-ray and digital download

Writer-director Cameron Crowe’s latest film is an earnest and skillfully rendered family drama that makes a strong argument for taking risks in both relationships and career.

The story centers on Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), a forty-something father struggling to keep his family going after the death of his wife. His teen son, Dylan (Colin Ford), is doing poorly in school, and Benjamin doesn’t know how to give his young daughter, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), the life she deserves. So, in a desperate attempt at change, he buys a rundown Southern California zoo that needs major renovations in order to open for the public.

Benjamin’s practical brother, Duncan (Thomas Haden Church), advises him against such a radical move, but Benjamin plunges forward. Before long, he’s in charge of dozens of exotic animals and a staff that just as idiosyncratic as the creatures they care for. Chief amongst this group is head zookeeper Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson), a woman so dedicated to her job that she has no social life.

Mee is a simple man, and the role doesn’t require Damon to stretch, but he uses his star power and charisma to deliver a likable reading of the character. Johansson and Church are typically solid in their supporting roles, and Ford and Jones are able to go toe to toe with their older counterparts.

Adding authenticity to the project is the fact that “We Bought a Zoo” is based on a true story. The film was adapted from a memoir by the real Benjamin Mee, who runs Dartmoor Zoo in England. Obviously, Crowe has taken liberties with the story, including moving the animal park to America, but that in no way weakens the viewing experience. In fact, “We Bought a Zoo” is part of a rare breed: the sort that maintains a PG rating while boasting a top-notch cast, A-list director and script that doesn’t underestimate the intelligence of its audience.

DVD and Blu-ray extras include a feature about working with the animals and an audio commentary with Crowe, actor J.B. Smoove and editor Mark Livolsi.


“Eagleheart” – Season One: First 12 episodes of comedian Chris Elliott’s parody of TV crime dramas. In the show, Elliott plays Chris Monsanto, a U.S. Marshall who has no qualms about using deadly force. The DVD release also includes deleted scenes, outtakes and numerous audio commentaries. Brett Gelman, Maria Thayer and Michael Gladis also star.

“Chinatown”: Blu-ray debut of director Roman Polanski’s 1974 thriller about a private investigator who stumbles onto a mystery with huge implications for the city of Los Angeles. The movie has received widespread critical acclaim, and the American Film Institute ranked it at No. 2 on its list of the greatest American mysteries of all time. Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and John Huston star.

Oscar-winning actresses in action: Lionsgate is releasing movie collections from three Oscar darlings: Gwyneth Paltrow, Nicole Kidman and Rene Zellweger. Paltrow’s release includes “Shakespeare in Love,” “Emma,” “Bounce” and “View From the Top.” Kidman’s has “Cold Mountain,” “Rabbit Hole,” “The Others” and “Dogville.” Zellweger’s collection includes “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” “Chicago,” “Cold Mountain” and “New in Town.”

“Regular Show – Slack Pack”: Twelve episodes from the first two seasons of Cartoon Network’s “Regular Show.” The animated series focuses on a raccoon and blue jay who do everything possible to avoid work.

“Titanic” (1953): Blu-ray debut of director Jean Negulesco’s drama about an unhappily married couple who book passage on the doomed Titanic luxury liner. Clifton Webb, Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Wagner and Thelma Ritter star. The film won an Oscar for best writing.

“Chasing Madoff”: Documentary film about Harry Markopolis, a securities analyst who helped uncover the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme. Produced, written and directed by Jeff Prosserman.

“Madonna – Truth or Dare”: It’s shaping up to be a big year for Madonna, who performed at the Super Bowl in February and released her 12th studio album last month. Now, Lionsgate is rolling this 1991 documentary onto Blu-ray. The film chronicles the pop singer’s 1990 “Blond Ambition” tour with a mix of interviews, backstage footage and performance clips.

“Danny Phantom” – Season 2, Part 1: Ten episodes of the Nickelodeon animated series about a teenager with the ability to turn himself into ghost and perform heroic feats.

“Alien Opponent”: After a spacecraft crash lands on her property, a junkyard owner offers a reward to anyone who can kill the alien pilot. This results in an unbridled and violent melee. Directed by Colin Theys. Jeremy London and Roddy Piper star.

Comedy from JB Smoove and Jo Koy: Paramount is rolling two feature-length Comedy Central productions to DVD: “JB Smoove: That’s How I Dooz It” and “Jo Koy: Lights Out.” Each show was filmed while the comedians were performing for live audiences.

“Angelina Ballerina – Ultimate Dance Collection”: Three-DVD set featuring assorted episodes of the animated, children’s television series about a mouse who loves to dance.

“Fireman Sam – Rescue on the Water”: Another kid-friendly release, this DVD features six water-based episodes of the animated television series about a caring fireman.

– Forrest Hartman is an independent film critic whose byline has appeared in some of the nation’s largest publications. For more of his work visit E-mail him at

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