Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Genre: Drama, War
Opens locally Christmas Day, December 25th, 2011
Run Time: 2 hours 26 minutes, Rated PG-13
Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, Niels Arestrup, David Thewlis
Directed by Steven Spielberg
On the heels of Wednesday’s The Adventures of Tintin comes another Steven Spielberg film, War Horse. I am not usually a huge fan of horse-themed movies, but War Horse is an epic and touching journey that is by far the better of the two Spielberg films you’ll find in theatres over the holidays.
Spielberg pays homage to John Ford movies of yester-year with War Horse’s sweeping landscapes and beautiful cinematography…many of the scenes look like moving paintings. The story centers around a young boy, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), and his horse, Joey around the time of World War I. When they are forcibly separated, the remarkable horse embarks upon an epic adventure that has him entering in and out of the lives of a multitude of people across the war-torn country-side of France. Not able to forget his close friend, Albert enlists in the war in an attempt to track down his horse and bring him home.
Sounds cheesy, I know, but in the hands of Steven Spielberg, War Horse transcends the hokey premise, although perhaps not entirely. This is a PG-13 film after all. In fact, Spielberg goes lighter than usual in his depiction of war, a stark contrast from the very real and graphic natures of films like Schindler’s List, or Saving Private Ryan. You won’t see much blood on the battlefield in War Horse, although the action-scenes are intense and sometimes chilling. As is common in his films, the Germans are once again the bad guys, but War Horse’s tone gives us several amusing and unexpected moments of tongue-in-cheek comedy strewn in for good measure (like a scene where a British and German soldier unexpectedly work together to untangle Joey who is caught in a fence mid-battlefield).
In the lead role of Albert, I sadly found Jeremy Irvine not up to par to handle what was required. His over-the-top performance comes off as annoying, and I kept wondering what this movie could have been with a stronger lead. After about the first 30 minutes though, Joey is separated from Albert and War Horse picks up serious steam. At this point, the film becomes a series of short vignettes telling one tale after another, as Joey goes from one situation to the next with Albert’s storyline taking somewhat of a backseat. These stories reveal humor, sadness, and humanity in the war-struck lands of France. Wherever Joey goes, we get a glimpse into the realities of the war and the interactions of the people surrounding him.
This middle portion of smaller episodic tales makes up the bulk of the film, and each one is truly riveting. Joey at one point is in the possession of two German soldiers, then found by a little girl and her grandfather living in the country-side. Then he finds himself in a war battalion ready to strike an enemy camp. Somehow, we believe that this horse is special, without the film ever feeling cartoonish.
Woefully, Albert must return to the story at some point. When he does, things play out as you might expect they would in a film such as this. That’s not to say that there isn’t sadness or unexpected twists and turns, but if it ended too poorly for Albert and Joey, we’d arrive back at an R-rating.
But for nearly 100 minutes of this 146 film, War Horse is an epic wonderment, an achievement in film-making. Spielberg will undoubtedly receive criticism for the heavy-handed nature of the film – telling us when to laugh, when to cry, when to feel. But in a movie about a horse, I didn’t mind the guidance. Surely, it’s one of the best horse movies that I can recall, because I can’t recall another good one. That’s probably because this horse movie isn’t about horses really…it’s about people.
War Horse is not without flaws, but it had more depth, and more insights than I expected. It was also enjoyably family-friendly, depicting real-life crises without hammering home the reality of them. It is beautifully shot, with some soon-to-be iconic images (how about Joey sprinting across the war-torn battlefield?) that basically scream Spielberg. Good to see he’s back in the saddle again, after bucking us with Tintin.
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