How could a film with such sweeping themes are war, honor, family and equines turn up so emotional distant? A film with such a refined pedigree, based on a glowingly received novel by Michael Morpurgo, which was turned into a Tony Award winning play, and now a film directed by Steven Spielberg, War Horse is one of those leaden, somewhat obnoxious films that doesn't need to be great or adored to earn awards plaudits and generous box office numbers. That's a shame considering the end result is decidedly hum-ho, as opposed to rapturously emotional. For the story at hand is decidedly so up Spielberg's sentiment-heavy zone, it should be the type of the film that melts its audience within minutes, what with it's canvas of gorgeous landscapes and wartime setting, a perfect coming back party for the director the showcase his John Ford-esque skills matched with his bravura technical know how. Perhaps it could have been a fine reminder of the depth of scope, cinematically, creatively and emotionally the franchise friendly filmmaker eschewed with films like Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, and most recently, Munich. Instead War Horse is presented, almost arbitrarly in fine family friendly attire as a timid tale of a Disney-fied version of WWI, a tale of a horse that nobody wanted, and the one plucky boy whose spirit and optimism all meant to shake humble movie-goers to torrents of tears, while indiscriminating Academy voters check off their ballots.
Perhaps I am coming off a bit harsh, the film, warmly lit and often beautifully (if at times distractingly) photographed by longtime Spielberg collaborative cinematography Janusz Kaminski is presented as but a confection, at least at the start. We see a warm vista of a young horse running and scampering with his mum, while a young man- we learn later that he is named Albert, our eventual co-hero in the tale, played with a wide-eyed vacancy by newcomer Jeremy Irvine- watching in nicely Spielbergian childhood glee. Early on, comparisons to Black Beauty and Seabiscuit feel apt, as this young equine, a half thoroughbred with an inconsistent temper, is marked and labeled as nearly worthless. Presented at auction, an older, miserly drunk named Ted Narracot (Peter Mullan) makes a bid, either as a desperate pride play or a true believer, it's a bit difficult to read. Moreso because the first act of War Horse has such an inconsistency of tone-- it wavers from tragic to slapstick to saccharine within single scenes. Narracot is in a bind, however, as he's nearly broke, nearly going to lose his farm and his wife, a spitfire named Rosie (Emily Watson) is less than pleased. Luckily his son, it's Albert, is a consistent true believer and volunteers to train the cantakarious horse in hopes of plowing the family farm and saving the family from destitution.
The giveaway for matters of the heart is connection Albert and his horse, newly named Joey, which would be grand and harmonious if it weren't for the unabashed corniness of not just Irvine's performance, but the film as a whole-- War Horse was written by Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) and Richard Curtis (Love Actually.) Fortunately, the supporting cast, headed by great gamesman players like Mullan, Watson, Tom Hiddleston (Thor), Niels Arestrup, David Twelis and Eddie Marsan (Happy Go-Lucky) are gifted enough performers to settle personalities that may not have been there on the page. There is certainly something moving about the bond between man and animal, there always has been-- but there's hardly enough dimension given to either Albert or Joey to make us care too deeply about their bond. And there's a few too many throwaway faux emotional asides that play hokey and unintentionally humorous-- there's a early sequence that reads eerily similar to How to Train Your Dragon when Hiccup is trying to appease Toothless...seriously same gestures. The first stretch of War Horse is certainly the weakest, for even as an emotonally dormant film, it gradually starts to pick up as the weight of it's subject matter rises.
That rise comes as WWI officially begins, and starts the journey of its titual creature. As an effort to keep up the rent, Narracot is forced to sell Joey, despite Albert's cries, and the still tempestuous Joey is off to war. Fortunately, the charmingly and seemingly noble Cap. Nicholls (Hiddleston) becomes his new guardian. There's a certain rousing and rooting interest as the war sequences start, not just because Spielberg can usually counted on as a master showman, but also because it's the first taste of any sort of movable action in the film, and it's quite a long, somewhat slow one at that. We follow Joey's journey through enemy lines, as the horse is forced to go both sides as collateral damage more than once, as well follow Albert's journey of becoming a British soldier, while holding on (perhaps a bit too tightly) to memories of him and his friend. There's a brush of sentiment, but it's hardly moving as the tricks and knobs are turned, in such obvious attempts at gushes of tears. There's certainly sadness in the subject, war is indeed sad, and a gangbuster of a scene where Joey scampers down a painfully distracting CGI field jetting from bullets, but it's mishandled with a payoff that not only martyrs Joey, but makes him a truce for peace. War Horse ultimately gets weighted down because of it's own earnestness.
Had Spielberg kept the film from the point of view of the horse, it perhaps wouldn't be less corny, but might be have been more moving ultimately. Instead, the film jettisons in too many windy directions with its large cast largely left to their own devices, and a quaint notion of a small-sized tale of devotion between boy and horse is overcome by a film that has both a larger and smaller scope than it's aiming for. What's left for emotional refrain might just be the lilting over-scored music composed by John Williams to lull us in the space of story or character. C