“War Horse” is one part “Saving Private Ryan,” one part “ET” and all Spielberg. Pulling its inspiration from both a children’s novel set during World War I and the 2007 stage adaptation of the same name, it is the kind of movie that used to win Best Picture awards. It’s handsome, well crafted and emotional, but also old-fashioned and a bit too traditional for its own good.
Newcomer Jeremy Irvine stars as Albert Narracott, the son of Ted (Peter Mullen), a poor but proud Devon farmer. In the months before the outbreak of World War I Ted gets caught up in auction fever and wildly overpays for a thoroughbred horse in the local village. The horse, named Joey, is a beauty, but Ted needed a workhorse not a purebred. His son Albert, however, bonds with the horse and rains him to plough fields and earn his keep. When war is declared the horse is recruited into the cavalry as an officer’s official ride. Heartbroken, Albert vows he will be reunited with Joey at the end of the war. In the coming years the horse changes hands several times, passing from the British to German armies, to a French farmer and his granddaughter, before winding up, alone, in No Man’s Land. He’s the little horse who could… could save the family farm, fight a war, bridge the gap between enemies, but most of all, survive.
“War Horse” is an old-fashioned, inspirational horse movie, fueled by big emotional moments and Joey’s even bigger soulful eyes. Combining epic, realistic battle scenes with smaller emotive moments Spielberg has made a traditional feeling film that nonetheless feels uneven.
For every scene that really works, like shooting part of one sequence through a reflection in the horse’s eye, there are two others that feel unnecessary. It’s frustrating because the things that work are spectacular.
Spielberg has an unerring eye when it comes to shot composition and he knows how to suck every drop of emotion out of a scene. Few moments on film this year are as effective as Joey’s entrance into the No Man’s Land between the German and English trenches. Wrapped in barbed wire, writhing and snorting, it’s magnificent in its tortured beauty (although horse lovers may find it hard to watch).
But for all its highlights the first twenty minutes drag, Irvine has almost negative charisma and the end is coated in an almost sick-making thick layer of Spielbergian sugar.
“War Horse” is a beautiful looking film, handsome in both its craft and intention, but runs out of racetrack because of too many moments of unearned emotion.