Director takes over the theaters with two epic productions
Two splashy extravaganzas from planet Spielberg in the same week? They might be construed, à la Tarantino, as a mock retro double feature, but neither of them is likely to profit from close comparison with its coincidental companion in the master’s oeuvre.
War Horse is too unwieldy and cumbersome to thrive on its own program, let alone a double bill, and the frisky verve and nervy high spirits of The Adventures of Tintin can only be diminished by close proximity to the longer, larger film’s maudlin shadow.
Both films are youth-oriented adventure tales in period settings—World War I in War Horse; the period between the world wars in Tintin. War Horse, adapted from a novel (which is also the basis for a current Broadway play), may have literary seriousness on its side, but Spielberg’s animated adaptation of the classic European comic books (originally authored by the Belgian artist Hergé) has the greater liveliness and authenticity, cinematic and otherwise.
War Horse has a wealth of narrative hooks, but it’s not a very strong or even coherent story overall. The war-horse angle is there as a framework, something on which to string a series of sketchy anecdotes about ownership, authority, nobility, animal love and the inhumanity of Anglo-European “civilization” circa 1914. Ultimately, it’s a “horse story,” but one in which the horrifying historic backdrop is treated mostly as a colossal inconvenience for Albert (Jeremy Irvine) and his beloved steed.
Both films have a boyish protagonist, a companionate animal and a host of caricatured secondary characters. One of the curiosities of this tacit pairing is that the live-action War Horse is beset with thin, dismally cartoonish characterizations throughout, while the cartoon-based Tintin, with its motion-capture animation, invests its comic-book fantasy figures with something like credible, full-bodied vitality.
Tintin’s combination of motion capture and 3-D, both completely at the service of the unfolding story, works extraordinarily well. The sensational, exuberantly paced action sequences have a surprising kinetic dimensionality to them, and as a result, they make genuine physical sense in even their more magical moments. The best of the comic action in Tintin replicates the elaborate and beautifully timed stunts of classic silent films—the accidental gesture that perfectly subverts an impending threat, for example.
Much of War Horse feels like a rather congested pastiche of classic Old Hollywood—How Green Was My Valley, The Charge of the Light Brigade, All Quiet on the Western Front, Gone With the Wind, etc. Saccharine sentimentality prevails early on, and after an absurdly catastrophic collision with modern warfare, the picture limps into its anthology of miscellaneous anecdotes about the assorted folk—a British cavalry officer, two German deserters, an elderly Belgian farmer, a British corporal—who take temporary charge of Albert’s eponymous horse.
The liveliest sequences in War Horse come near the end, and one of them is devoted entirely to the horse’s flight from and through a calamitous battle scene. The horse is one of the film’s long-suffering heroes, but even with his gallant beauty, he makes less of an impression, characterwise, than does Tintin’s trusty dog “Snowy,” who is every bit as memorable as the flagrantly erratic Captain Haddock and the bumbling detectives, Thompson and Thomson, and perhaps others among Tintin’s familiar irregulars.