First a popular young adult novel before being turned into an imaginative stage play by British playwright Nick Stafford, the film War Horse proves to be a visually splendid but dry adaptation.
Brought to the screen by master American filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who released the far more creatively successful The Adventures of Tintin within a week of War Horse this past winter, the aging helmer proved he still has the ability to tell a great story with both films. Yet only War Horse may not provide much by way of a tale that viewers can hold onto.
Told through the perspectives of several individuals throughout the course of World War I, War Horse starts with the birth of the titular horse Joey, who is purchased by a poor British farmer named Ted Narracot (Peter Mullan). Teds son Albert takes a marvelous liking to the horse, taking it upon himself to train the expensive investment of an animal to work to help maintain his familys fledgling farm.
When it becomes apparent the Narracots could use the extra money that selling Joey would produce, Ted takes the horse into town in order to sell him to Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), for use in the beginning of what would be the first Great World War. Albert makes a promise to Joey, for whom he becomes obsessively fond of, that hell find him on the battlefield of war someday and rescue him.
If the synopsis doesnt sound enough like the treacle-filled reels of other Hollywood films like Seabiscuit and Secratariat, then viewers are in store for a great deal of melodrama in this tale of a boy and his horse. As Joey begins to change hands of various owners throughout the film, with each exchange seemingly meant to signal some sort of moral fable, things slide progressively downhill in terms of the films earnest nature.
The problem with War Horse begins with the story. While the stage play has long won acclaim for its visual splendor, the film drew many of the plays criticisms that the relationship between Joey and Albert never feels fully realized. Within the first hour of the film, were expected to believe that Albert and Joey are forming an everlasting emotional bond that cant be torn apart by the harsh realities of war, yet we never really have a grasp on that.
Its sort of a wonder that Spielberg and E.T. screenwriter Melissa Mathison were able to craft such a wonderfully intricate relationship between the characters of Elliot and the spaceman E.T. in that 1982 film, yet Spielberg cant shed light on the relationship between Albert and his terrestrial horse Joey.
Like Saving Private Ryan did for WWII, War Horse does bring to light the harshness of World War I, through several instances that are both jarring and emotional. One particular scene involves two teenage German soldier deserters, who are found and executed in a brutal fashion, with Spielberg framing the scene in an incredibly poetic form, as the blades of a nearby windmill hide the act.
Perhaps much of the blame for the films lackluster story goes toward the screenplay by Lee Hall and particularly Richard Curtis, who is known for overtly sentimental material of this kind in films like Love, Actually and Notting Hill. Hall also wrote a similarly themed tale in the dance saga of Billy Elliot, but that tale of a torn young boy and his love for dance was executed far more gracefully than the relationship between Albert and Joey.
Perhaps its hard to tell who wrote what, but judging by Curtis body of work, theres a good chance hes responsible for some of the films dialogue between Albert and Joey, which quickly diminishes any sense of earnestness for their relationship by employing all the trappings of a stuffy melodrama. Once again, it makes it hard to care for their relationship, especially when many straight-faced scenes almost inspire laughter.
Its a shame because there is a lot to recommend about War Horse, especially its arresting visuals and inspired performances by its ensemble cast, which is practically worth braving the two-and-a-half hour running time alone. Yet by the films end, viewers may be left feeling as if they have a cold heart, as even the final moments that are meant to inspire an emotional response from the audience fall flat.
Spielberg certainly doesnt play War Horse out as a safe and predictable Oscar-baiting film until its final moments. Yet for someone who was really beginning to explore his darker side in a compelling manner with films like Minority Report and War of the Worlds before a three-year-long break following the misfire that was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, it feels like a return to when the filmmaker was constantly criticized for his sentimentality intruding upon his remarkable storytelling skills.
While Adventures of Tintin was a sugar rush of an adventure film that successfully pushed the filmmaker into a whole new realm of animated splendor, War Horse stalls as an antiquated and languid film that simply proves Spielberg can make even the most trite piece of cinema watchable at least once.
War Horse is now available from Disney on Blu-ray and DVD alHall