By Bill Wine
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – It’s the story of a horse. And his boy. And their war.
It’s War Horse, an old-fashioned epic melodrama from director Steven Spielberg, who here targets all generations and all varieties of moviegoers, and sets his somber drama against the sweeping canvas of rural England and the nightmarish battlefields in France during the First World War.
Teenager Albert, played by Jeremy Irvine in his first film role, instantly bonds with Joey, the brown thoroughbred that his father (Peter Mullan) bids on at an auction even though he can’t really afford the horse, especially since Joey seems ill-equipped to pull a farm plough, as Albert’s mother (Emily Watson) is quick to point out.
Albert nurtures Joey as a pet and trains him to be the family’s workhorse, using him to help the family stave off financial ruin at the hands of their unsympathetic landlord (David Thewlis).
This triggers a narrative that finds Joey becoming the property of a British cavalry officer and headed for the battlefields of France, while Albert, crushed, vows to find him and eventually bring him home. So Albert enlists and finds himself in the first of many trenches, always hoping he will somehow run into Joey and reunite with him.
Later, Joey ends up on a farm in France where he becomes the hidden property of a grandfather and granddaughter, after which he is captured by German soldiers, who use him to drag weaponry.
This is unmistakably Joey’s journey: he’s the catalyst. But it’s the array of human relationships that he affects that is the film’s ultimate footprint, with Joey serving as a reflection of the way two-legged characters treat each other.
With a screenplay by Richard Curtis that’s based on the 1982 children’s novel by Michael Murpurgo and the award-winning hit play adapted from it, War Horse is an episodic saga told from the horse’s point-of-view, an innocent farm animal sent off to war, an epochal conflict that will see millions of horses treated as cannon fodder and slaughtered.
The attention-grabbing device of the play of the same name was the use of life-size puppets as horses. The film’s horses are not nearly as arresting, even if they are showcased in a handsomely mounted production. With fourteen horses playing Joey, Spielberg hardly resorts to CGI-effects trickery at all — just a few seconds’ worth — in his attempt to create naturalistic magic.
Spielberg tries not to overdo the self-conscious tear-jerking. He succeeds, but at a price. And the reason for that is, to some degree, because, in terms of our emotional availability and identification with a central character, Spielberg can — cinematically speaking — scream himself hoarse, but, when all is said and done, a horse is still a horse. Of course, of course.
Which is why we wish there were much more of Emily Watson, the only human performer to make any kind of an impression. Once she disappears, we’re merely watching instead of emotionally reacting.
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Thematically, Spielberg (Jaws, Schindler’s List, E.T.: the Extra-Tererrestrial, Raiders of the Lost Ark) is after the cruelty and grotesqueness of warfare, but he uses the PG-13-rated War Horse to address World War I obliquely and briefly, in contrast to the direct and extended way he explored the bloody carnage of World War II in Saving Private Ryan.
We know from the get-go that we’re in the hands of a master visual storyteller who never lets his adapted-from-a-play film seem stagebound. And if we resist some of his emotional flourishes and yearn for a dynamic human protagonist, we nonetheless notice the striking locations, the brilliant combat reenactments, the gracefully choreographed camera movements, the masterful John Williams score, and the haunting images offered as magical Spielbergian moments.
So we’ll saddle 3 stars out of 4 for a harrowing survival story and a fine family film. At this level of taken-for-granted cinematic accomplishment, complaining about shortcomings and extravagances feels a bit like looking a War Horse in the mouth.