Never cry for machines. I don't care how holistically Zen you are, objects assembled from wood, fabric and metal screws don't feel, they function. Alas, the same sort of objectification extends to how we treat animals; we reduce them to tools or slaves, or dinner. So when Joey, the astonishing equine-engine (puppet seems too puny a term), gallops across no-man's-land during World War I and gets snarled in lines of barbed wire, tears of pity may short-circuit your empathy apparatus. It's only a mock horse manipulated by actors, yet your heart breaks. Animal and machine are caught in a tragic trap of man-made cruelty.
Based on a formerly obscure young-adult novel by Michael Morpurgo, the stark and thrilling War Horse charts a coming-of-age tale of loyalty and survival, focusing on Devon country lad Albert (Seth Numrich) and a draft-horse--stallion mix whom he names Joey (crafted, as all the nonhuman characters are, by South Africa's artful Handspring Puppet Company). Sold to the France-bound army by Albert's feckless father, Joey is plunged into the industrial hell of the Great War, terrorized by machine guns, shells and, in a very alarming sequence, a tank prototype. Albert enlists to fight, mostly to recover his four-legged friend. Both boy and beast undergo a series of grim trials, as we witness the horrors of war from both the English and German sides.
Directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris knit together striking design elements (the puppets, video animations, painterly light and smoke displays) and a sterling ensemble of local troupers (including T. Ryder Smith, Richard Crawford and Alyssa Bresnahan) to build a triumphant epic of human and animal spirit, working together to heal some of the perilous wounds we have inflicted on nature. War Horse will make you believe that puppets live and breathe, and perhaps even have souls.—David Cote
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