- Rated PG-13
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All photos © DreamWorks Pictures
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
aybe the winter months have chilled my heart, or I’m just not a big enough animal lover to care, but there’s very little emotion in Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse,” despite the director's best intentions. That’s not to say that the movie isn’t any good, but when you go into a film expecting the waterworks to flow, only to leave the theater without shedding a single tear, there’s something missing. What it lacks in feeling, however, it makes up for in scope. Based on the children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo and the Tony Award-winning play of the same name, “War Horse” is like a movie from another era – an old-fashioned, Golden Age-style epic that will likely get better with time.
The story begins in Devon, England on the eve of World War I. After a drunken farmer (Peter Mullan) foolishly overpays for a young horse and falls behind on the rent as a result, his son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) – who immediately bonds with the horse and names him Joey – trains it to save the family farm. But when the war comes and Joey is sold to make ends meet, Albert vows to do whatever it takes to get him back. (Spoiler alert: He makes good on that promise.) Before that can happen, however, Joey goes on a journey that spans the length of the war, changing several hands along the way, including a Captain in the British cavalry (Tom Hiddleston); a pair of German brothers trying to escape their military duties; a French farmer (Niels Arestrup) and his precocious granddaughter (Celine Buckens); and a kindly German soldier (Nicolas Bro) with an affinity for horses.
The idea of using Joey as a vehicle for showing the many different sides of the war is a pretty clever storytelling device, but when almost every character he comes into contact with becomes so preoccupied with him, you're forced to step back and ask, "Don't these people have more important matters to worry about than some damn horse?" Joey may be a symbol for a number of things (loyalty, sympathy, hope, courage) – and his effect on those he meets in the war is never more apparent than in a lighthearted interlude where a British soldier and German soldier call a temporary truce to free Joey from an entanglement of barbwire – but he never feels quite as special as he's been presented.
Each “vignette” has varying degrees of success (the aforementioned segment involving the enemy soldiers working together is undoubtedly the highlight of the whole movie), but the characters that inhabit them are far more interesting than Albert, which is a major problem. Though Jeremy Irvine does a fine job as the earnest young man who becomes enamored with Joey, he disappears for a large chunk of the movie, only to be reintroduced in the final act with the expectation that the audience will still care. It’s a pretty big risk, and one that ultimately doesn't pay off, because while Albert and Joey’s relationship is meant to be the core of the story, it’s the weakest part of the whole film.
Fortunately, the middle portion is strong enough that the sections featuring Albert don't completely derail the movie, with some great performances from Niels Arestrup, Toby Kebbell and Benedict Cumberbatch as a British cavalryman whose own mount forms a friendship with Joey. The movie is also unabashedly Spielberg-esque in just about every way, from the sweeping shots of the European countryside, to John Williams’ moving score… and even the fact that it’s about 20 minutes too long. But although there are some definite moments of brilliance throughout (Spielberg's depiction of death is especially beautiful in his refusal to show any actual bloodshed), "War Horse" fails to reach true greatness due to the lack of emotional punch. Movies like this are supposed to make you feel something, but the only thing I felt was relief that it had finally ended.