Steven Spielberg is such a lazy bastard. I mean, come on, only directing two big budget movies released within a week of each other?
War Horse is one of two movies the prolific director has delivered in 2011. The CGI animated adventure, The Adventures of Tintin, is also in theaters. (Due to screening schedules and accelerated deadlines, even though Tintin was released a few days before War Horse, the review will come at a later date. I know it’s strange, but holiday deadlines beckon.)
As for Spielberg’s 2011 live action offering, it’s a mixed bag, albeit an overall good mixed bag. The emotional stuff gets to the point where even the most loving of persons could get generally uncomfortable watching it. Spielberg just doesn’t know where to stop sometimes. At this point, I just sort of find this little flaw to be a cute thing about him. The film is based on a children’s book, and stage adaptation, of the same name.
As for the horse in the title, it’s named Joey. There has never been a more impressive group of horses in a movie. Numerous, identical horses play the War Horse, and they are all some of the most amazing creatures ever put to film. The Black Stallion, Seabiscuit, the head in the Godfather movie bed—they all take a back seat to the horses in this movie.
Newcomer Jeremy Irvine makes a nice feature debut as Albert, an English youth living on his family’s lackluster farm just prior to World War I. His father Ted (a mightily melodramatic Peter Mullan) outbids his damned landlord (David Thewlis) for the horse, spending too much money and pissing off wife, Rose (Emily Watson).
Albert is tasked with teaching Joey how to plow a field, a field full of rocks no less, in order for the family to grow crops and pay the rent. Joey performs well, but is eventually sold to the army when Britain enters WWI. Tom Hiddleston, wonderful as Loki in this year’s Thor, makes a splendid appearance as the soldier who purchases Joey.
While War Horse might not be the year’s best film, it does have a sequence that I would submit as one of the year’s best. When a spooked Joey runs through WWI trenches and winds up snarled in barbed wire, it results in one of the greatest moments Spielberg has ever put to film. It’s an incredible combination of live action and special effects, and one of those screen moments that makes you wonder just how the hell the filmmakers could pull it off.
While this sequence represents the film’s highlight, there are other powerful moments such as Albert being victimized by a gas attack in the trenches, and that rain-drenched plow run with Joey. The scene when Albert rides Joey and races a car is exhilarating.
There are times, good times I might add, where War Horse feels like Spielberg’s crack at his own Gone with the Wind or All Quiet on the Western Front. I got the Wind vibe during some of the horizon shots provided by camera genius Janusz Kaminski, while the WWI sequences remind of Western Front. As Spielberg proved with Saving Private Ryan, he is capable of amazing battle sequences.
As I’ve mentioned, some of the emotional payoff stuff is a little overcooked. A scene close to the finale is unabashedly goofy when it wants to be moving.
Still, it’s easy to forgive Spielberg’s slipups when the majority of his movie is a pleasure to look at, and well acted by humans and animals alike. While there are some moments in War Horse I’ll allow myself to forget, I’ll never forget the amazing Joey, and the magnificent animals that played him.