In this film image released by Disney, Jeremy Irvine is shown in a scene from "War Horse." The film was nominated Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011 for a Golden Globe award for best motion picture drama. The Golden Globes will be presented Jan. 15 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, televised live by NBC and hosted by Ricky Gervais. (AP Photo/Disney, Andrew Cooper)
2 out of 4 Stars
After two decades of churning out high quality, audience-pleasing popcorn fare, Steven Spielberg got tired of not being taken seriously as an "artist" and got real intense with "Schindler's List." He won an Oscar and earned the respect of everyone who might have previously discounted him. Five years later, he made "Saving Private Ryan," won another Oscar and put to rest any doubt that he is one of the greatest filmmakers of all-time -- popcorn and all.
"War Horse" finds Spielberg straddling the fence between the mindset of his visceral epics and the easy-to-swallow fluff of his earlier work. For an entirely different set of reasons, it's equally as mediocre as his first war film ("1941") and is easily the most tentative, unsure and disappointing film of the second half of his remarkable career.
If you've watched the "War Horse" trailer (one of the best of its kind of this or any other year), you've already seen everything worthwhile contained in the film. For a man who knows how to propel a narrative better than most of his peers, Spielberg flounders here and it's not pretty. Most of it is mawkish, unbalanced, patronizing, cloying and not even close to being suitable for its desired family demographic.
Many people who are familiar with the 1982 children's novel by Michael Morpurgo and others who were understandably wowed by the 2007 stage play by Nick Stafford should prepare themselves for a major letdown. What many of them probably don't know is that Morpurgo spent years writing a screenplay for it and when he surmised it couldn't be done, turned it over to Stafford to adapt it for the stage. There's your first and biggest clue. If the creator of the story couldn't make it work as a film, chance are, no one could.
The first 30 minutes show why Morpurgo threw in the towel. In an effort to spite his landlord, a perpetually drunk and frustrated farmer (Peter Mullan) overpays for a prize horse that he can't afford and one that is not suitable to perform strenuous agricultural duties. In the process, he alienates his wife (Emily Watson) yet thrills his teen son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) who is beyond determined to will the horse he names Joey into defying the odds.
This opening salvo and next half-hour of the film is very family-friendly but still clunky and -- minus the booze factor and bellicose tirades -- plays out like "My Friend Flicka," "National Velvet" or "The Black Stallion." Boy bonds with horse, horse bonds with boy and all is right with the world. Then that pesky World War I comes along and negates everything.
At this point, certain key plot points must be revealed to parents in order to give them an inkling as to why they might not want their children to see this movie. If you don't want to know these details, please don't read the next paragraph as it contains spoilers.
The impending war allows the farmer to recoup some of his losses by selling Joey to the British army, thus ripping his son's heart out. Over the course of the rest of the film, Joey is in the care of at least five others -- three of whom are children -- and four of those five die -- two by firing squad. Joey is severely mangled after running through barbed wire and another horse he befriends dies on the battlefield.
While looking good and authentically "war like," the second half of the movie also introduces the audience to characters along the way that are well established by screenwriters Richard Curtis and Lee Hall and then summarily cut loose. The filmmakers regularly pull the rug out from underneath the audience and while it's technically not cinematic bait-and-switch, it's close.
For those who have no problem watching hundreds of humans die on film but get upset if an animal is even slightly injured, you'll be consoled to hear that the Joey character is the only one in the film that will leave a lasting pleasant memory. Joey is the sole constant figure for the duration and is written and realized on-screen as an extraordinary being. It's heart-warming and undeniably inspirational. Most adults will find this part of the film upbeat and even some of them might realize that what happens along the way is very disturbing.
The PG-13 rating is quite fitting. This is a drawn-out, 146 minute war movie containing frequent violence and indiscriminate death. If you take a preteen child to see it, expect unwanted repercussions and some degree of post-viewing trauma. If the movie was actually recommendable, this might -- might -- be capable of being overlooked but sadly, that is not the case. (DreamWorks/Touchstone)