Steven Spielberg is one of the most prolific directors to ever step behind the camera. His movies are mesmerizing, exciting and sometimes even profound. Those adjectives are perhaps most characteristic of his earlier efforts like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, but that doesn’t mean his newer films, like Minority Report and War of the Worlds, don’t entertain, even if they are thematically less interesting. He’s a living legend with a filmography as impressive as anyone to have ever been involved in the movies, so even though his latest, War Horse, is still a technically good movie, it manages to disappoint because it doesn’t live up to his other efforts. You should still see it, but only if you’ve already seen the others.
The story takes place during World War I. A poor family has just bought a new horse to plow their farm. However, the horse proves to be a poor worker and he is just as quickly sold to the soldiers going off to fight the war, much to the chagrin of Albert, played by Jeremy Irvine, who has developed a bond and fallen in love with it. Tracing the path of the horse and the boy, the movie explores the bond between human and animal, even when they are worlds apart.
Or so it tries. Narratively, War Horse is bland. It moves along at an inconsistent pace, at times forgetting about the boy and other times forgetting about the horse. At times, this movie could simply be called War because the horse has little impact on what’s happening. And emotionally, the film is empty. Only the scene where they are torn apart manages to evoke any type of sadness because the bond between man and beast is barely even created, much less explored. You never feel like the boy is that upset about their departure because it is never shown. By the time they reunite via a major plot contrivance (which are preceded by a number of other major plot contrivances), only the most emotionally fragile of viewers will feel anything but coldness.
What really drags down War Horse is its sentimentality. Spielberg has had success in the past with what some might consider overemotional plots, but War Horse takes the cake. The dramatics in the film aren’t just obvious; they seem intentional. Spielberg could have just as easily filmed himself for two and a half hours begging for an Oscar and you’d get the same effect. Still, the film is a technical accomplishment. He may overdo it in regards to emotionality, but this is nevertheless a terrific looking movie. The gorgeous landscape shots really give a sense of time and place to the film, when folks didn’t have television or video games and spent most of their days plowing large stretches of field, and the war scenes are (unsurprisingly, given his success with Saving Private Ryan) intense and exciting. Spielberg directs with style and it shows.
The actors are phenomenal as well, even though they are forced to trudge through soap opera melodramatics. They are never thrown off by the unpredictableness of the horse and manage to make all of the film’s problems at least somewhat tolerable. Lots of lines are eye-rollers, but they’re delivered with confidence, which negates some of their negative effects. On the whole, however, War Horse is two and a half hours of mediocrity. It tries real hard, but in this case, that’s a bad thing. Its efforts come off as desperate, surely an unintended side effect. Don’t let my negativity fool you, though. This is still a good movie; it’s just not Spielberg good.
War Horse receives 3/5