For his latest director Steven Spielberg returns to the theater of war, but in a far more family friendly way than Saving Private Ryan. War Horse centers around the relationship between a young man (Jeremy Irvine) and his horse, separated by the war, both trying to survive and make it back to each other. If it sounds like Lassie Goes to War, it is, except in this case Lassie is a horse (and Timmy falls into WWI instead of a well).
For the second time in a matter of weeks Spielberg delivers a somewhat disappointing film. War Horse doesn’t have the same problem as The Adventures of Tintin, having no real heart at the middle of the story, but it is overly sentimental and far, far too much like a Lassie film than I assume the director planned to make.
The fact that the film is adapted from a children’s novel, which I learned after seeing the film, helps explain some of the oversimplification and hand holding we’re given over the course of the story, but I would expect a director like Spielberg to do more with what he’s given. Although he frames the story well, and provides some wonderful visuals, in the end the film stretches the bounds of credibility by bringing a boy and his horse back together in the middle of war, hundreds of miles from their home.
Our story begins and ends with the Narracott family. The proud father (Peter Mullan) buys a thoroughbred at market, to the displeasure of his frumpy wife (Emily Watson), mainly to vex his landlord (David Thewlis). It’s up to his son, Albert (Irvine), to make sure the horse can help save the small farm from foreclosure (which he does in miraculous fashion). However, when war comes to Great Britain the horse, against Albert’s objections, is sold to the military.
Most of the film’s sequences focus on Joey (the horse) overcoming great odds, showcasing a super-human amount of effort and heart, and bringing different groups of people together. Some of these sequences (the German deserters, Joey’s time as a work horse for the German artillery) work better than others (hiding in the attic, the groan-worthy plowing of the field witnessed by the entire countryside).
Over the course of the film Joey serves as the calvalry horse for a British Captain (Tom Hiddleston), as a supply horse for the German army, and as a wonderful gift for a young French girl (Celine Buckens) and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup). To no surprise, eventually Albert and Joey will find each other, but not before one or two more obstacles are thrown in their path to make it back home together.
The film has some nice moments including Joey becoming trapped in no man’s land and freed by the unlikely pairing of both an English and German soldier. There are also several shots that harken back to older films including the final sequence which give us a not-so-subtle homage to Gone with the Wind.
War Horse is a fine family film, and mostly bloodless examination of the horrors of war through the eyes of several different combatants. It’s certainly not going to wow you, but it works well-enough along those lines. Always over-sentimental, at at times even trite, the film sadly isn’t the great Christmas film we might have been hoping for, but, for the right audience, War Horse should work just fine.