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IMAX presentations are an unusual breed. Averaging about forty minutes in length, they take documentary film back to its origins, simply showing the world as it is and letting the giant-screen medium do the work. In 1902 it was, "you can see a real train on film!" In 2002 a show about the Amazon rain forest or a pack of penguins merely needs to be a number of pretty pictures strung together with a binding narration. The oversized IMAX film format does the rest --- blown up two stories high, shots of little animals are hyper-real. Views of outer space make us feel as if we're hanging suspended in orbit, counting clouds above the Earth far below. With the pictures doing the talking, IMAX docus don't require a compelling thesis or an exactingly researched story. Mostly non-controversial, they're often perfect viewing for families with small children -- at least those not too young to be terrified by the size of the screen.
2002's Horses, The Story of Equus is an Australian-German production that simply needs an excuse to collect 45 minutes of beautiful shots of horses. As the IMAX camera is much too large and IMAX film too costly to shoot in normal docu style -- grossly over-filming and then weeding out the best moments -- every bit of action is carefully staged. Some documentary filmmakers would say that this makes the show scripted fiction.
Gabriel Byrne contributes a pleasing narration against a backdrop of soft folk violins. The story traces the life of three foals born on an unspecified ranch in an unspecified country, probably Australia. It's all pretty pictures -- we see the newborn horses unsteady on their feet in the green clover, but there are no shots of the births. Horse experts could probably tell better than I that each horse is "acted" by a number of animals at different ages -- the pre-scripted show isn't a true docu account, but a pictorial diversion.
The life stories of the animals are presented in shorthand form. As yearlings, they are sold at auction. One is to be trained as a riding horse and the second has what it takes to become a racing steed. The third's lineage is so lofty, it's immediately sent off to a stud farm. In other words, we're watching the debutante days of privileged animals -- none are destined for drudgework, abusive owners or the proverbial glue factory. We instead see very nicely photographed images of training races and jump riding. The narration emphasizes that horses are naturally submissive and do well when attuned to the commands of their owners in a trusting relationship. We're also told that the species would have probably been made extinct, had they not been such practical mounts.
Each horse is given a slight drama to play, that, considering the fates of 99% of horses, are misleading fantasies. The racing animal overtaxes its legs in early training and waits the better part of the year to recover. It takes part in an exciting race, wins, and is retired to carry on its noble line in contentment, producing more blooded offspring. The riding horse is eventually trained as a movie stunt animal, and is shown rescuing its owner when a fire breaks out in a barn during filming. We're encouraged to believe that this horse is like Lassie, a loyal partner-friend to its owner.
Horse #3, a beautiful black stallion, escapes during transport to the stud farm, presumably avoiding a life of forced sex. Evading recapture, he takes up with a group of wild horses in the hills, all of which seem healthy and reasonably well groomed. Eventually he becomes a legend-like noble king of the high country. Wild horses clearly have to come from somewhere, but this romantic view of a horse's life options will give younger viewers a lot of false ideas about animals. Horses are fascinating friends of man and there are plenty of reasons to appreciate and honor them without spinning misleading myths, no matter how mildly. Horses, The Story of Equus really harks back to Disney's earliest nature documentaries, which imposed anthropomorphic and romantic notions onto the wild to insure a good family entertainment value. 1
On the big IMAX screen Horses, The Story of Equus must have been a beautiful show, 45 minutes of gorgeously photographed horses playing, training, racing and generally strutting their stuff, often in slow motion. As a pictorial entertainment, it must have been a pleasure to watch, a hyper-real album of these beautiful and photogenic animals.
Warner Home Entertainment's DVD of Horses, The Story of Equus is a puzzling DVD. Three years into the HD format, big-screen IMAX shows transposed to home video are almost all available on Blu-ray. That this show is only being released as a standard DVD isn't a deal breaker, but the presentation is an inferior flat-letterboxed presentation. Although the transfer and encoding are of good quality, the show simply isn't going to look very good on anything but an older flat monitor of medium size. I stopped complaining about inferior flat-letterboxed transfers over five years ago, when the overwhelming majority of DVD companies finally got hip to widescreen enhancement. Warners has a proud record as one of the most quality conscious distributors, consistently ahead of the curve in terms of providing audience-pleasing products. Perhaps the IMAX people provided this transfer and nothing more. The audio is in Dolby Surround Stereo and subtitles are included for English and Spanish.
I have IMAX Blu-rays about racecars and jungle adventures that I'll put on the machine just to relax and enjoy the pretty pictures. Unfortunately, even though this IMAX DVD is far better than the average for content, it isn't going to have the same appeal, as it lacks the minimal quality boost afforded by widescreen enhancement.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Horses, The Story of Equus rates:
1. The now nearly ubiquitous belief that lemmings periodically commit mass suicide by stampeding over cliffs, was awarded the status of fact in a totally faked scene from Disney's criminally dishonest 1958 documentary White Wilderness. If Uncle Walt says it, it has to be true. Horses, The Story of Equus can be complimented for not telling us what the horses are thinking or assigning human emotions to their interactions.
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T'was Ever Thus.