Originally Reviewed – 1/15/2012
An orange glow washes over a boy and horse, framing them in silhouette against the late day sky. The thunder of hooves and hilts as an equine legion gallops towards an infantry unit. The giggle of a small girl as she tries to teach our protagonist how to jump. Two rivals become friends in the oddest of situations. War Horse is filled with glorious moments, expertly crafted by one of the greatest filmmakers of our time, Steven Spielberg. The classic book turned award winning play has been getting a lot of attention this year, culminating in this Oscar season film. Gloriously shot and filled with the filmmaking flourishes only a master like Spielberg can muster, War Horse is a visual marvel. Unfortunately, looks can only get you so far as this film misses great by a number of small missteps. War Horse is worth a watch but don’t expect an experience that ranks among the director’s greatest work.
War Horse tells the story of a boy named Albert (Jeremy Irvine) and a horse named Joey. Albert was witness to the birth of Joey and when his father randomly purchases the colt at auction, Albert takes up his training. However, things take a turn for the worse when a little thing called World War 1 breaks out and an attempt to save the farm (yes…that old gag), Albert’s father is forced to sell Joey to the English army. The film then chronicles the adventures of Joey as he travels in and around the war, touching a number of people along the way.
Remember what I said about the movie being beautifully made? Wow, is it ever true. With the help of long time collaborator Janusz Kaminski, War Horse is painted in the award winning cinematographer’s signature style. While some may find the textures over bright and unrealistic, I found them to be emotionally stirring. The film is also punctuated with the little directorial flourishes that make Spielberg a master storyteller. From a the turn of a windmill hiding a somber moment to a little girls shocking discovery as she crests a hilltop, War Horse is an easy film to get swept up in based on the visuals alone.
Oh yeah. Remember what I said about the film being very flawed? Wow, is it ever true. The film suffers from a lackluster first half that’s predictable and episodic. While things pick up considerably in the second half, right around when Joey meets a farmer and his granddaughter, the film has already lost momentum due its inherent lack of tension. In a film called “War Horse”, it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that the horse is going to succeed throughout most of the film. Or course one could say the story is really about the relationship between a boy and his steed but even there the film doesn’t quite work. While the movie goes to great lengths to show you the relationship between Albert and Joey, I never quite felt it. To further the issue, Albert disappears from the film 45 minutes in only to resurface towards the end. By the time you pick up his story again, I didn’t even recognize the character, a bad sign for a film about a human/equine relationship.
Through all of the film’s faults, there does remain one glimmer that pushes us through the predictable tale. Steven Spielberg loves the material and loves making movies. A perfect example of a director giving his all, War Horse survives solely on the breath of its director. If somebody else had helmed this film, it would have been a clichéd disaster. With Spielberg’s direction, War Horse gallops above the contrivances of the plot, and provides an easy to enjoy film that everybody can find something to enjoy in. Just don’t expect to get caught up in the tension, rooting for the characters or discovering something you didn’t already know. Just sit back, grab some munchies and let the stunning visuals take you above and beyond the plot points. You’ll enjoy the movie much better that way.
Score – 75%