Our contest is strictly confined to the animal kingdom in this edition of Movie Smackdown. The creatures competing in the bout are Joey, the title character of the Steven Spielberg-directed War Horse, and the small dog/cat gang on a wilderness trek in Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey. Despite the vastly different settings of the two (the trenches and no-man’s-land of World War I in the former and the California wilderness in Homeward), the two are both family friendly, featuring epic journeys aimed at reuniting beasts and masters. Hard work indeed, but the hardest is ahead—competing against each other in this Smackdown.
The English countryside of Devon circa 1914 is a very Steven Spielberg-ish place. The farm houses are warm and homey, the townspeople earthy, the life simple and pure. But although they exist in this nice jar of honey, the Narracott family is struggling. They can barely eke out a living from their crops, a situation made more precarious when Ted (Peter Mullan) impulsively spends much of his family’s free income on a beautiful horse, young Joey (ably played by more than a dozen different animals). The new acquisition quickly bonds with teenager Albert (Jeremy Irvine), Ted’s only child.
This isn’t the best situation as, due to Ted’s shaky command of finances and the failure of one of their crop cycles, the family is forced to sell Joey in order to keep paying rent. The buyer is the British army, which has just lurched into a war that will claim the lives of most of Europe’s youth. A distraught Albert tries to prevent the sale, but his efforts are in vain. Before the horse is taken away, Albert promises to find and reunite with him.
Easier said than done, as the war slogs on for years. Joey participates in one of the last cavalry charges in military history (predictably a disaster), then is adopted by a pair of underage, German army deserters, then a lonely French girl and her kind grandfather, then he’s almost worked to death when a callous German officer forces him and other horses to tug huge artillery pieces to the front. Pushed to his limit, Joey makes a near-suicidal escape across no-man’s-land that ends with him getting tangled in coils of barbed wire. Meanwhile, Albert enlists to fight and is nearly blinded in a gas attack. It starts to look doubtful that Albert and Joey—wounded, limping shells of the man and beast they once were—will ever find each other among the corpses and ruin of the war.
Young, hyperactive bulldog Chance (voiced by Michael J. Fox) lives a carefree life in the happy home of the Burnford family. This despite his often contentious relationship with their loyal old golden retriever Shadow (vocalization by Don Ameche) and pampered cat Sassy (Sally Field). The divorced Mrs. Burnford (Kim Greist) gets remarried, to businessman Bob Seaver (Robert Hays), and together with the kids, the newlyweds take a trip to San Francisco. The animals are left at a ranch to be cared for in their family’s absence.
Unfortunately, Chance, Shadow and Sassy don’t realize the departure is a temporary one. Already nervous and unsettled, the gang panics when the ranch’s caretaker, Kate (Jean Smart), leaves for an errand. Thinking she’s abandoned them on the ranch, Shadow insists on trekking all the way back to the Burnfords. Although Chance doesn’t share his companion’s sense of obligation, he’s unwilling to let the aging dog fend for himself in the wild, and he accompanies him on the trek. Sassy, also reluctant, trudges along too.
Their trip takes them through the mountains and around various geographic and other obstacles. There’s an incident with Sassy getting caught in a quick-flowing river, a scary encounter with a mother bear, and a scarier bit of stalking by a mountain lion, not to mention Chance’s wrong-headed attempt to befriend a porcupine. Like young Albert’s efforts at reuniting with Joey in the rival movie, Team Chance’s chances start to grow dimmer as the film progresses.
These offerings are made by veteran moviemakers who know their territory well. Spielberg is famously good at youth-vs.-overwhelming-external-forces stories; in War Horse he’s on familiar ground, and his touch is sure and solid. The same could be said of the makers of Homeward Bound, director Duwayne Dunham and writers Caroline Thompson and Linda Woolverton, adapting the novel by Sheila Burnford. They made this movie under the auspices of Walt Disney Pictures, which by the time the film was done had more than half a century of experience cranking out entertainment aimed at kids.
So in both cases, the movies hit their target audiences effectively. Spielberg does a good job tuning his material to the intended young adult audience. We see and feel plenty of the war but its horrific waste of life is usually implied rather than graphically depicted. Meanwhile, Homeward moves along at a breezy pace ideal for the short attention spans of children. The story is simple and involving while the pets are likable and easily to root for. There’s also plenty of humor in Chance’s goofy naiveté and the gang’s irrational fear of being abandoned by their family.
Where War Horse scores more points is in its originality. Yes, it’s an adaptation (by screenwriters Richard Curtis and Lee Hall, from the novel by Michael Morpurgo), but the placing of its beast/owner quest in the middle of a brutal war is unique. For all its good qualities and craftsmanship, Homeward is similar to numerous other animals-on-a-mission quest stories (Watership Down, for one, hops to mind). As a result, it’s not as fresh as its rival.
The situation poor Joey finds himself in is also significantly more compelling. Yes, the Homeward gang risks mountain lion attack and drowning in the wilds of California, but that’s nothing compared to the years of machine guns and poison gas attacks faced by Spielberg’s brave horse. War Horse not only has a good human/pet dynamic, it raises the stakes very well by putting that story under fire.
Of the two, War Horse gives the old animals-in-peril trope a more riveting, one-of-a-kind spin. Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey is a well made, enjoyable piece of entertainment, but it’s not unique and doesn’t leave as much of a lasting impression as Spielberg’s movie. So get a carrot ready; it’s feeding time for our friend Joey, and War Horse takes the treat.