It's December, it's Steven Spielberg, it's Oscar time. The second of two Spielberg-directed movies to hit theaters since Wednesday, War Horse promises everything that Oscar voters love: war, family bonds and horses. Ooh, horsies! The great news is that War Horse is an excellent war movie about a horse. The bad news is that War Horse is a war movie about a horse.
War Horse is like Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, only sappier, more colorful and not nearly as good. The movie is everything I feared it would be when it was announced: it's a very well made production that is simply limited by its silly premise, and ultimately a waste of Spielberg's exquisite talent as a filmmaker. At least there's Lincoln to look forward to.
People looking for a lighthearted war movie loaded with feel-good moments should stop reading this review and go War Horse right now. They'll love it. But for a critic who compares every war movie to a bar set by Spielberg's 1998 masterpiece, War Horse is an entertaining but unfulfilling drama.
The movie begins on a British farm with a splash of color, a blend of Gone with the Wind, Lord of the Rings and Babe. Joey the horse is born and bonds and the rambunctious creature bonds quickly with owner Albert (Jeremy Irvine). Spielberg spends considerable time developing the friendship, pitting the two protagonists against evil landlord Lyons (David Thewlis) in an entertaining but aimless subplot set against a Hobbiton-like English village. The beginning has everything from the drunk and disgraced farmer father (Peter Mullan), the straight and caring mother (Emily Watson) and a humorous goose, which truly does pay unintentional homage to Babe.
Then World War I begins, and Joey is sold to a British officer (Tom Hiddleston) who rides him into battle. The officer lasts about as long as soldiers on the front line lasted back then, and Joey falls into the hands of German soldiers. The exchange of hand continues over the course of the war, providing snapshots of people's lives on both sides - and of those caught in the middle.
Spielberg paints an elegant picture of the war, the scattered battles taking a back seat to various human stories. Some of them are somber, others funny, but all are engaging. Working off a script by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, Spielberg makes the many characters Joey encounters relatable, regardless of their national allegiance and intentions. Spielberg's ability to bring his characters to life in a believable and likable way is on full display.
War Horse as a whole is well made and entertaining. The colors are rich, the production values grand and the pacing consistent. It looks and feels like a Spielberg movie, which says it all.
So what's to complain about? It's a movie about a horse. No matter how hard Spielberg tries, he is limited by the fact that the movie is about a damn horse. It's a good horse story, a great one even, but it places Spielberg in an awkward position. War Horse is a war movie and Spielberg presents a fair amount of action, unleashing sequences of trench warfare, cavalry battles and other deadly situations. Excellent. Unfortunately, War Horse is also, sort of, a family movie, which means it can never match the intensity of Saving Private Ryan or most other serious war movies. There's very little blood, and Spielberg even goes so far as to show hundreds of horses surviving while their riders are blissfully blown away off screen.
More importantly, War Horse just feels like a safe, made-for-the-Oscars kind of productions that lacks edge or a real willingness to do something daring. Spielberg is a great director, but at times can hedge into schmaltzy territory. He definitely ventures into such territory here, with head held high and unabashed. While each section of the movie is good in its own right, War Horse never develops a consistent sense of dread or suspense. There's never a real concern for what will happen to Joey, even when he gets trapped in barbed wire. The scene where a Brit and a German both venture into No Man's Land to save Joey - showing that while enemies each person is not much different than the next - is entertaining, funny and heartwarming, but also blatantly sappy. War Horse is sappy on more than one occasion.
Many people will watch War Horse and not have any problem with a little sappiness. It's a PG-13-rated war movie with a horse, designed for mainstream audiences and some Oscar love in early 2012. But it doesn't come close to being among Spielberg's best. The acting isn't award-worthy, that's for sure. Jeremy Irvine doesn't make for a very captivating lead, his performance adequate at best. But the fact that Thewlis, Mullan, Watson and many of the other actors who dot the movie are also shaky in their delivery indicates that the screenplay may be at fault. The script isn't bad; it's that the dialogue feeds into the sappy nature of the story, demanding that the actors deliver feel-good performances for the sake of the movie. Instead of elevating the film, the cast is restrained by it.
That's not an attribute one normally sees in an Oscar-worthy movie.
In some ways, the sappiness of the movie, the feel-good nature of it, its family-friendly orientation, is exactly what should be expected. The movie is, after all, based on a children's novel by Michael Morpurgo. But it's still a PG-13-rated war movie, and it's clear that every effort was made to make it glossy, entertaining and just heartwarming enough to make audiences cry and Oscar voters fall in love. Because it's Spielberg, and it's glossy, and it's entertaining, and it's heartwarming. That's not enough. It's a war movie that tries to show warfare without its horrors, to entertain audiences without exciting them, to wrap everything up in a nice, happy bow. It just doesn't work the way it needs to.
War Horse is not a bad movie. It's well done and beautifully shot, and is entertaining through and through. But it's weak by Spielberg's standards, and not nearly as original or captivating as many other movies that have been released this year. It may earn some Oscar nominations, but it doesn't deserve them.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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