Robert Redford has spent more than 40 years in front of (and behind) the camera, so it's no surprise that he's amassed quite a deep filmography. From top-tier efforts like The Sting and Quiz Show to less memorable productions like Lions for Lambs, Redford's continued presence as an actor, director and producer is nothing short of inspiring. 1998's The Horse Whisperer sits near the middle of Redford's résumé; like Out of Africa, it's a little too long, a little too self-serving and a little too focused on pretty landscapes instead of compelling characters. By the same token, The Horse Whisperer's strengths also become more evident once it gets going.
Redford directs and stars as Tom Booker, a Montana rancher with a gift for training troubled horses. New York magazine editor Annie MacLean (Kristin Scott Thomas) attempts to enlist Tom's services for her young daughter Grace (Scarlett Johansson, in an early role) who, along with her horse Pilgrim, is badly injured in a terrible accident. Obvious parallels are made between the injury and gradual recovery of Grace & Pilgrim, as well as Annie's steadfast attempts to be at the center of it all. During their lengthy stay at the picturesque Montana ranch, however, Annie develops feelings for Tom that threaten her marriage to husband Robert (Sam Neill), as the handsome rancher represents a potential fix for everything that's wrong with her life.
Clocking in at a somewhat arduous 170 minutes, it's no surprise that The Horse Whisperer attempts to wear plenty of hats: we've got personal drama, complicated family dynamics, a rather stiff culture clash, a budding romance and, of course, horses. It's quite a load to carry, and The Horse Whisperer has trouble with its rather convoluted setup. To the film's credit, though, it doesn't always take the easy way out: our leads are fairly rough around the edges and don't necessarily get smoothed down. The film's closing moments reject the definition of "happy ending", even though Annie essentially does the right thing for her family. Either way, The Horse Whisperer hasn't aged badly at all in the last 14 years and, despite its flaws, remains a competent and entertaining "family film" chock full of panoramic vistas, solid performances and terrific music by Thomas Newman. It's not high art, but it's definitely not hard to get lost in.
Like a number of 1990s Touchstone DVD releases, The Horse Whisperer never received an anamorphic video presentation, which limited the film's impact on home video. This mistake has been corrected with a new Blu-Ray package (though it's not rightly not a "15th Anniversary Edition", as earlier reports indicated) that serves up a strong A/V presentation and...well, not much else, unfortunately. It can't be considered a truly well-rounded package, but fans will undoubtedly find The Horse Whisperer more engaging and eye-catching than ever before.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Like the original DVD, this Blu-Ray of The Horse Whisperer presents the film in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, rather than the mixed 1.85:1 / 2.35:1 format of the theatrical presentation; essentially, it opened up the sides once our female leads left the stiff confines of urban life. This is an understandable decision, as maintaining the mixed aspect ratios would have the opposite effect on a native 16x9 display. Either way, The Horse Whisperer looks predictably bold and crisp in high definition, especially in comparison to the non-anamorphic DVD. The film's lightly stylized color palette appears well-defined and natural, black levels are consistent and textures are frequently strong. Small amounts of digital noise and edge enhancement keep this from scoring higher, but it's still an excellent transfer that runs circles around the previous release.
NOTE: This review's screen captures were taken from the 1998 DVD and do not represent Blu-Ray's video quality.
High definition audio usually isn't the selling point for casual Blu-Ray buyers, but this DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track sounds absolutely fantastic from start to finish. Thomas Newman's excellent score is given a nice boost, as the film's frequent music cues are incredibly lush and strong without overpowering the dialogue. Rear channel activity is abundant during the film's many outdoor sequences, while occasional flourishes of action may even threaten the plaster on your walls. It's a notably upgrade from the previous Dolby mix, although the dynamic range is a bit too high and may lead to occasional volume adjustments. Optional English (SDH), French and Spanish subtitles have been included during the main feature and nearly all of the extras.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Menu designs are simple and load quickly, although a handful of previews must be dealt with beforehand. The 170-minute main feature has once again been divided into 22 chapters, while no obvious layer change was detected during playback. This one-disc package is housed in a standard-width keepcase and includes no inserts. It's locked for Region "A" playback only.
Not much, although it's more than what the DVD included. The "new" extras are actually three vintage Promotional Featurettes
(480p, less than two minutes apiece) that focus on the film's general production, Robert Redford and real-life "horse whisperer" Buck Brannaman. Obviously they're too short to be worthwhile...but hey, I guess they're better than nothing. Also new to this release is a Music Video
(480p, 4 minutes) for Allison Moorer's "A Soft Place To Fall".
Returning from DVD release are the rather worn Theatrical Teaser and Trailer (480p, 3 minutes total). Again, a commentary or retrospective feature would've been nice, but at least the price is right. Optional subtitles are included during all extras, save for the teaser and trailer.
Those looking for a challenging, layered Redford film may walk away disappointed, but The Horse Whisperer is successful within genre boundaries. Featuring a handful of strong performances, excellent cinematography and a durable score by Thomas Newman, this family drama picks up a fair amount of steam as the story chugs along. Touchstone's low-priced Blu-Ray release serves up a strong A/V presentation (especially in comparison to the non-anamorphic DVD), although the bonus features leave something to be desired. Fans will undoubtedly enjoy this upgrade, but everyone on the fence is encouraged to try before they buy. Mildly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey from Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects, teaches art and runs a website or two. In his free time, Randy enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.