‘War Horse’: A trot, not a gallop

December 26, 2011


It’s unusual to have Steven Spielberg competing with himself at the box office this holiday weekend, but there he is – with “The Adventures of Tintin” and now with “War Horse.”

Based on the popular children’s book that inspired the Tony-winning Broadway production, “War Horse” is exactly what it advertises itself to be: a schmaltzy tale of a boy and his horse, set against the backdrop of British poverty and World War I.

The horse, named Joey, is barely a yearling when it catches the eye of both the down-on-his-luck farmer Ted Narracott (Peter McMullan) and his teen-age son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine). Albert has seen the horse practically since the day it was born, has watched it grow and tried to make its acquaintance as he passed its field each day.

Then in a stroke of drink-fueled ego, the tenant farmer Ted bids every cent he has to deny Joey to his landlord, the obnoxious Mr. Lyons (David Thewlis). The horse is worthless as a plow horse, which is what Ted needs. But he can’t resist tweaking Mr. Lyons, even though the decision will come back to bite him later on.

Specifically, he’s paid all the money he has saved for the rent, just for this horse. If he can’t come up with a crop in time for the rent being due, it will cost him the farm. Rather than let his father sell Joey to pay for the rent, Albert teaches the horse to pull a plow – to the cheers of the townsfolk, who have gathered to see the effort.

But the forces of luck are aligned against Ted, who finally is forced to sell the horse – and gets top dollar from the Army, which is looking for mounts to take them to war in Europe against the Kaiser. Suddenly Joey is the horse of a cavalry officer (Tom Hiddleston) – who is about to discover that he is on the wrong side of the evolution of warfare technology with a horse and a sword, going up against machine guns.

Most of the rest of the film is Joey’s story, as he transfers from owner to owner, out of danger and into comfort, then back again, at the whim of fate. Albert, meanwhile, is fighting his own war, finally trapped as part of a force in the trenches in France, shortly before the end of the war. Will Albert and Joey be reunited? Will both of them live long enough to find each other again?

I’m not going to provide the spoiler, but keep in mind that this movie IS based on a children’s book. And the animal hero rarely dies in those. At least not since the days of “Ol’ Yeller.”

So why isn’t Spielberg able to evoke stronger emotions at what should be a tear-provoking finale? I’m a sucker for animal movies and tales of human/animal friendship. But while “War Horse” is able to bring the lump to the throat, it failed to bring the tears to my eyes.

Not that this is bad Spielberg. It’s just middling Spielberg, good as opposed to great. It has his signature moves; what it doesn’t have is the sense of passion that says, “This is more than a product. I really believe in this.”

I’m sure Steven Spielberg would argue that, in fact, he cared very deeply about these characters and this film as he made it. I wouldn’t contradict him.

I was impressed by the cinematic craftsmanship, the ability to evoke a sense of a by-gone era, not just with the story but with the storytelling. There are few directors as canny as Spielberg working today.

I’m just saying that I didn’t feel it at the end of “War Horse.” I wanted to; based on what I’d seen in commercials, I expected to. But I didn’t. That’s just the way it goes sometimes.

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