A grand tearjerker for all audiences, just like Hollywood used to make them.
An elegant, elemental, borderline corny boy-and-his-horse story magnified in significance by its battleground backdrop, War Horse possesses a simplicity that is both its greatest strength and an ultimate liability. As the material already has made forceful impact on the public in print and onstage, there is little reason to doubt that the same won't hold true for this film version, which Steven Spielberg has skillfully wrought as an atmospheric, tear-jerking, highly cinematic melodrama. But putting this episodic saga on the big screen accentuates its one-dimensionality more than the experience of it in the legitimate theater, where its symbolism and allegorical elements can be more easily accommodated in abstract terms. All the same, this is a story that people of all ages and from all nations can understand.
The idea behind Michael Morpurgo's 1982 best-seller has a fundamental universality and innate elegance that is impossible to refute: The title character, an innocent, blameless farm animal, is sent off to war and likely death like so many millions of animals and humans down through the millennia, cannon fodder for a conflict that wasn't necessary in the first place.
Tie this to the rural English setting, the intense bond between the horse and the youngster who cares for him, and the fact that the horse is a fleet runner, and you have something not far from National Velvet on the Western Front. From a different realm of the cinematic world emanates the echo of Robert Bresson's sublime 1966 Au Hasard Balthazar, in which the central figure of a donkey silently endures the abuse doled out by humans and the world at large.
So many of Spielberg's interests dovetail here: A boy, isolated in an adult world, who takes to heart a nonhuman creature; 20th century war; and storylines that force humanity to take stock and encourage rising above differences to come together. To those who have seen the stage production of War Horse, which debuted in 2007 in London and last year in New York, the big question is whether real horses can match the dramatic power of the fantastic large-scale puppets that have made the play such an event in the annals of stagecraft. The answer, in a word, is no. The magnificently designed and manipulated theatrical equines transport the spectator into a realm beyond the drama articulated in the text; they're creations far more breath-taking than anything similar (as in The Lion King) most audiences have seen before. No matter how dynamic and dramatic everything that surrounds it may be, a horse onscreen is still just a horse.
But what's appealing about the way Spielberg has made War Horse is the extent to which it recalls how Hollywood used to produce movies for everyone. Whatever its missteps, this is a film that kids, middle-aged adults and grandparents can all see and get something out of in their own ways. There are precious few films that fit this description today, and hats off to Spielberg for making one.
Spielberg has long expressed enthusiasm for the look of mid-century British films and, in this first section, he and his longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski have taken pains to reproduce that handsome style, even down to the noticeable use of artificial light outdoors. What results are richly satisfying visuals that wonderfully capture the rugged locations but also possess an old-school feel entirely in line with the period and story values.
But when the film finally arrives at the Battle of the Somme and the human hero, a British boy named Albert (Jeremy Irvine), and a German youngster recklessly venture out into no man's land to try to save the movie's equine hero, who can't disentangle himself from the barbed wire on his own, the essential realism of the cinema begins to show up the symbolic artificiality and essential implausibility of the young men's private detente. Onstage, the barbed-wire incident is appalling emotionally and morally; onscreen, the reaction is more, oh, poor horse, and why can't warring nations get along just as these two fellows do? What follows next runs even deeper into audience-pleasing wish-fulfillment and sentimentality, topped by a grandly phony ending that will set many tears flowing but feels overweeningly artificial, partly because of the Gone With the Wind-style colored lighting in which it's bathed.
Release date Dec. 25 (Disney)
Cast Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston
Director Steven Spielberg
Rated PG-13, 146 minutes