Apparently, 2011 wasn't so great for movie attendance -but it was a great movie year for animals.
Entertainment Weekly reports that box office numbers continued their two-year slide down to a paltry $9.57 billion through mid-December. On the other hand -or paw or hoof -checking the same publication's list of "25 Movies to See Before Oscar Night," you'll see that animals had a banner year.
Between the scene-stealing dogs in "The Artist," "Beginners" and "Young Adult" and the animated stars of "Rango" and "Kung Fu Panda 2," critters are holding their own on the big screen.
And that's not even counting the year's greatest performer on four legs, the mighty star of Steven Spielberg's "War Horse."
I saw the film Sunday, coincidentally the same evening England's royal newlyweds were attending its London premiere. It was the eve of Princess Kate's 30th birthday. It's hard to escape thinking England's royal hoopla for the premiere fits right in with the reasons I had put off seeing this World War I epic, despite all its Golden Globe nominations and, presumably, Oscar nods to follow:
It's just too perfect.
Like a cross between "Black Beauty" and "All Quiet on the Western Front," it's a throwback to old-fashioned storytelling, all gussied up with the latest in film technology.
Initially it's the story of a noble but humble farm boy (Jeremy Irvine) and the horse his drunken father buys in a moment of misplaced judgment. The boy names the horse Joey. The problem is that Joey is a thoroughbred, but what's required is more working-class, not worried about a little mud on the hooves, capable of pulling a plow over the rocky, unforgiving but still picturesque fields all day long.
Then the war comes; both horse and lad eventually wind up in the trenches. Literally. In his unique military career, Joey sees duty on both sides of the lines, illustrating in the process, the reasons why the lines shouldn't be there in the first place.
Like its equine protagonist, the movie is majestic and powerful. It, too, is the product of fine breeding -Emily Watson and David Thewlis leads its English-accented cast -and noble intentions. Spielberg does everything, from the scenes of English country life to the horrendous visions of World War I, on a grand, sweeping scale.
Maybe less would have been better.
Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski have never seen a sunset or pastoral vista they couldn't enhance. Every frame is saturated with glorious color. Every line of dialogue sounds like a poem. The horse is inspiring, the young man is heroic, wars end, broken bodies and families can be repaired.
You keep knowing "War Horse" wants to tug at your heart if only it could find its own.
My choice for animal movie of the week goes instead to the less grand - and considerably messier - "We Bought a Zoo."
Cameron Crowe has adapted English journalist Benjamin Mee's account of how he coped with his wife's death by buying a ramshackle little zoo where he moved his young son and daughter in a desperate attempt at repair and renovation. The film overflows with heart, from a variety of species.
Granted, it helps to have the reliably terrific Matt Damon playing the struggling dad. And the inspiration for the resident zookeeper probably wasn't actually as irresistible in real life as Scarlett Johansson makes her out to be.
Moving the action to Southern California and filling out the eccentric cast with Thomas Haden Church, Colin Ford, Elle Fanning and especially 7-year-old Maggie Elizabeth Jones are all good moves on Crowe's part. After launching his career with instant classics like "Almost Famous" and "Jerry McGuire," it's nice to see him evolving from rock 'n' roll and sports frenzy into more family-friendly terrain without losing a step.
As with "War Horse," you go into "We Bought a Zoo" knowing you're going to get your emotions worked. But you come out of it feeling like the tears, and more than a few laughs, were earned honestly -and were happily given on your part.
The theme of how fixing broken animals is a good way to fix broken humans is also shared by the film "Dolphin's Tale," upcoming in a new series of free Starry Night Cinema screenings debuting at the MACC. The first one, "Surf's Up," is this Sunday. You can read more about it in the movie pages.
And in a different hybrid of human and animal life, Ricky Gervais is back to host the Golden Globes, which will be televised Sunday. Hosting them last year, he did a great imitation of a snake in the grass.
Here's hoping he hasn't forgotten how.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org