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War Horse is essentially a really involved game of Capture the Flag. In fact, if you set it to a different soundtrack, it’s a horror movie. Think: Rubber. But in place of a murderous, telepathic tire, substitute a horse named Joey.
I draw this comparison because director Steven Spielberg’s mind-numbingly maudlin film follows our equine protagonist into the lives of numerous individuals touched by the events of World War I, and most of them don’t exactly fare well. The flag comes in the form of an old military regiment pennant, bestowed on Joey by his first owner Albert (played Jeremy Irvine), and passed along to each person Joey subsequently touches during his epic journey.
Based on the children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo and the resulting stage adaptation, War Horse begins with Joey’s birth, under the watchful eye of inquisitive Albert (who exercises his right to give good Spielberg Face throughout the entirety of the film). Albert’s alcoholic father Ted (Peter Mullan), charged with buying a plow horse at auction, instead purchases Joey for an extravagant amount of money after entering a bidding war with his villainous landlord.
What ensues is an hour of Albert training Joey in order to prove to his misanthropic mother Rose (Emily Watson) and his ashamed father that the thoroughbred can plow their rock-ridden field, thereby wrenching the family from the brink of poverty. This is the part where I warn you the first hour of War Horse is a slog — indulgent, setting a tone of predictably glossy hardship. For all that I didn’t click with the feel of the film (which is essentially like watching the trailer on a loop for two and a half hours), I’ll give it this much: War Horse isn’t afraid to go to dark places. Unfortunately, all-too-typical archetypes await once it gets there.
A bond between boy and horse is formed just in time for disaster to strike, and World War I to start. Ted sells Joey to kindly British Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) against Albert’s will, and Joey’s trek begins. As he’s passed (along with that damned flag) from owner to owner, we’re given a glimpse of the way war touches countless individuals — British and German soldiers, enlisted brothers, a civilian grandfather and his sickly granddaughter, and, the corresponding thread entwined throughout, Albert. Upon parting with Joey, the boy vowed that he’d find him. Joke’s on the audience, though, as you have to mush through countless soppy storylines if you want a shot at getting there. (Also: Daniel Day Lewis did it better in The Last of the Mohicans.)
On a positive note, although Spielberg has given in once again to his softer side, failing to suspend disbelief for the plights of so many of War Horse’s players, it’s still clear there’s a master director at work. The man knows how to shoot an epic — gorgeous overhead ambush shots in wheat fields and action in the German and British trenches are borderline poetic — and he certainly wrenches emotive performances from his cast. Not to mention the horses, which pull stunts that I previously never imagined capable of the massive animals. It’s just too bad that Spielberg is so focused on the silver lining of the film’s dark clouds; all that humanity becomes blinding. It’s unrealistic, like a hokey fairy tale set to real-life events.
The movie could also have done with some editing, not only during that first grindingly slow hour, but throughout the action. One of Joey’s layovers is at an idyllic countryside farm owned by a kindly grandfather (Niels Arestrup) and his granddaughter Emilie (Celine Buckens). The spirited and adorable Emilie’s parents are long dead, and the two spend their days harvesting perfectly ripe strawberries and making jam, until the German troops arrive to ransack the house and garden, announcing that, during wartime, all civilian goods are property of the army. Frankly, the meandering tale is a throwaway, adding little to an already cliche-ridden story.
If my screening’s audience was any indication, War Horse is going to be a hit with the Oscar set. Or anyone who enjoys giving a good slow clap, or being led willingly to weep. But with so many other original and challenging movies out this season (hey, one out of two ain’t bad for Spielberg; his far superior The Adventures of Tintin is playing), I urge you to drop the War Horse flag before it’s too late.
War Horse opens nationwide on Christmas.