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Zimbio Review - 'WAR HORSE'

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Director and producer Steven Spielberg (L) and actor Tom Hiddleston attend the "War Horse" world premiere at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts on December 4, 2011 in New York City. (Getty Images)more pics » The Bottom Line
Should you see it?


The cinematography and movie-friendly shots of a beautiful horse make the film aesthetically worthwhile.
Steven Spielberg's War Horse overloads us with sentimentality and generally lacks the kind of depth of story such an ambitious project needs. War Horse isn't a terrible film by any means, but it's not close to a great one. Spielberg has set the bar high and the curse of one of our greatest directors is we expect greatness every time. He has not fulfilled that promise in a long while, since 2005's Munich or 2002's Catch Me If You Can. War Horse loses points from the start by subjugating our collective pathos by centering its story around an animal. But, indeed, what an animal. The title horse of the film, named "Joey," has some moments of screen greatness, but not enough to carry this melodramatic throw-back to the works of John Ford.

First, War Horse is a beautifully shot film. Janusz Kaminski's lens is, as always, in the middle of the action and utilizing every space of every frame to maximum effect. The best part about War Horse is how it looks. The best shots happen before and after the first war scene. The British cavalry emerges from the golden wheat fields as they mount their horses. Afterwards, the camera pulls back slowly, showing the multitude of bodies lying dead in the field. These are wonderful movie moments that harken back to The Quiet Man or Gone With the Wind. Likewise, the action sequences are impressively rendered. It's not breaking new ground to depict the front-line trenches of World War I. What is unique is showing the horrors of the trenches in a family film. But, Spielberg may have been better served picking his battles, no pun intended. His decision to merge the cartoonish world of the boy and his horse and the very adult world of the boy and his horse in war delivers a muddled picture. When the German army coldly assassinates two soldiers for desertion, the camera is shielded by the turn of a windmill. When a main character is killed during an attack, we never see him fall. The camera shows his terrified face and cuts to another scene. Yes, this is a specific style that softens the blow for the audience, but aren't we past that yet? I understand Spielberg is trying to allude to the old classics, but these types of moments did not work for me. The audience deserves some credit, why call the film War Horse if the war is going to be taken out of it?

War Horse spans an indeterminate length of time (a year? two years?) during which we follow
the horse from birth through his tribulations during WWI. As a colt, Joey is sold to a farmer from Devon (Peter Mullan) who pays too much during a proud auction he can't lose to his landlord (David Thewlis). The farmer's wife (Emily Watson) is outraged at his carelessness but their son, Albert, (Jeremy Irvine) couldn't be happier. Albert revels in training the horse, teaching him to come to him with a whistle. These scenes are downright wholesome, complete with a distractingly corny musical score by John Williams that Frank Churchill would've been proud of. In the "aw shucks" role of a lifetime, Irvine is a grade A cream puff. He prances in the field with his horse as his dim-witted buddy guffaws at the two best friends. These contrived early scenes do little to develop any real kind of relationship between the boy and the animal. The one scene that tries, where Albert and Joey succeed in plowing an "unplowable" field, lacks any substance. These scenes may be enough to enrapture a child, but any thinking person will be left unfulfilled and groaning.

As the film awkwardly shifts into a war setting,
Joey is sold by Albert's bankrupt father to pay the rent. Thus begins the saga of the horse in war and the long journey back to Albert, which, inevitably, does come. For a war horse, Joey sees an exceptionally small amount of war. At least in the beginning. He is captured by the Germans and continuously saved by the kindness of strangers. The great French actor Niels Arestrup makes an appearance as a farmer who, along with his granddaughter (Celine Buckens), hides Joey and another horse after they are discovered in their windmill "waiting for Don Quixote." This section of the film had more of an effect on me than the beginning. Credit must be given to Ms. Buckens, who puts Jeremy Irvine to shame in her scenes with the horse. She is natural, funny, and possesses more character in her proverbial pinky than Irvine could ever muster, whether he was working with a pig or a winged Pegasus. Put simply, some kids got it and some don't.

What also hurts War Horse is its hurried pace, as each person who comes in contact with Joey must be given ample screen time. Each of these scenes feels rushed. Given the length of a novel, War Horse thrives, but within the boundaries of a film, even a 146 minute one, it languishes. The story ends with a reunion of Albert and Joey in the midst of battle. Joey tears through the trenches like a bat out of hell, ensnaring himself in a web of barbed wire. After he is freed (in a ludicrous scene where a Brit and a German work together to undo the wire), Joey is brought to the medic who decides the horse should be put down. Obviously that doesn't happen and Albert finds him by, you guessed it, whistling.

War Horse was written by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis who adapted the story from Michael Morpurgo's 1982 novel of the same name. The book is a beloved children's novel and I'm sure plenty of people will love this movie. The story on its own has all the elements of a classic. However, this adaptation is too forthcoming in it's melodrama. It fails to capture the love between the boy and the horse. The performance of Irvine is mostly to blame, but the script also does not deliver. This was probably destined to be the case as the real story here is that of the animal. Joey is supposed to be the hero of the tale. The horse (horses, actually, seven equines played Joey) is impressive, but film can only do so much to develop an animal's character. They will always be more extraordinary on the page.

See more photos from the War Horse premiere:
  • Jeremy Irvine in "War Horse" World Premiere
  • Jeremy Irvine in "War Horse" World Premiere
  • Jeremy Irvine in "War Horse" World Premiere
  • Jeremy Irvine in "War Horse" World Premiere
  • Jeremy Irvine in "War Horse" World Premiere
  • Jeremy Irvine in "War Horse" World Premiere
  • Jeremy Irvine in "War Horse" World Premiere
  • Jeremy Irvine in "War Horse" World Premiere
View Steven Spielberg Pictures »
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