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War Horse

2011 | 146 min | PG-13 | 2.39:1

War Horse


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3 user reviews

Movie appeal




Theatrical release date

 25 December, 2011
 13 January, 2012

Country of origin

 United States

Box office




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War Horse Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, December 23, 2011

20 years ago, Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” would’ve been a very different movie -- lighter, schmaltzy, and soaring. Today, the feature represents the director’s current tastes in wartime realism and elongated emotional momentum, trying diligently to cater to the old Spielberg screen magic, only to be blocked by a matured filmmaker who’s rusty with this type of material. The two creative sides never quite settle on a consistency for this episodic adventure, keeping “War Horse” unsteady, earnest yet painfully dull. While it seems like grand slam material for the bearded maestro, the story rarely gets off the ground, lost between its dreamy storybook qualities and need to reinforce the bone-chilling tragedy of war.

Immediately bonding with a spirited horse named Joey, young Albert (Jeremy Irvine) looks to protect his pal from the difficulties of poverty in Ireland, surprising his mother (Emily Watson) and father (Peter Mullan) with his devotion. As World War I breaks out across Europe, Joey is sold to a cavalry, commencing a four-year journey that finds the horse encountering a sympathetic commander (Tom Hiddleston, “Thor”), a rural Frenchman (Niels Arestrup) and his granddaughter (Celine Buckens), and a grueling German system of military advancement. Changing owners and countries, Joey displays extraordinary strength and courage, helping him survive his daily encounters with war zone misery. Albert, hoping to reunite with his heroic companion, enlists in the army, sent out into the front lines where survival is unlikely.

Based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo (also turned into celebrated 2007 play), “War Horse” carries an impressive catalog of encounters for the starring horse, taking him into the fiery center of WWI on a harrowing mission of determination, guided by a startling series of admirers impressed with the animal’s exceptional strength and courage. The story seems like a perfect fit for Spielberg, who enlists screenwriters Richard Curtis and Lee Hall to give the picture a tight-fisted European spin, balancing the syrupy needs of the heart with the bitter reality of battle. It’s a contrast of emotions that splits “War Horse” into two speeds, making the viewing experience inconsistent as Spielberg searches to please his audience while keeping himself invested in the disturbing particulars of the story. It’s rare to find the filmmaker this distracted, this unsure of the material’s inherent majesty.

“War Horse” is gentle in the opening act, setting up the relationship between Joey and Albert with soft punches of conflict, resembling an inspirational Disney film from the 1960s, shot with endless John Ford skies. It’s a disarming introduction to the story, sold with tremendous earnestness from the gifted ensemble (which also includes David Thewlis, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Toby Kebble) and John Williams’s uncharacteristically intrusive score, which is always dragging around to thickly underline an emotional beat or impending doom. While far from peaceful, “War Horse” commences with an inviting kid-lit tempo -- one can almost feel the pages turning as Joey and Albert grow together as a team, developing a bond that will come to be tested in a monumental fashion. Although never suffocatingly saccharine, Spielberg feels around for triumphant moments, luring the viewer in with tempting but minor tests of character and endurance, playing conflicts tenderly, almost indifferently.

The picture grows darker as war break out, playing into Spielberg’s recent interests in period authenticity and realistic violence. “War Horse” might seem like a peaceful family film, but it carries a considerable amount of battlefield casualties. The slaughter is tastefully composed but retains its intended horror, successfully yanking the audience from remote farmhouse trials to the evils of honorable men, with Joey finding himself in dire circumstances that require the persistence of his sharp animal instinct. At 140 minutes, the movie devotes most of its run time to the combat experience, greeting a slew of new characters interested in possessing Joey for sincere reasons of therapy and protection. The script takes its time with these encounters, reducing pace to appreciate the fringe players. “War Horse” moves in slow motion during its second and third acts, laboring over languid behaviors that add nothing to the film. Spielberg becomes too caught up in the lives of others, dragging the feature to a halt on a few occasions, losing the central electricity of the Joey/Albert relationship. Granted, it’s the horse’s story, and his pit stops around Europe are intended to create a feeling of survival. Instead, the glacial attitude of the direction flattens the mood of separation. “War Horse” looses touch with the essential elements of drama to chase an enormous scope that’s drained of urgency.

“War Horse” is beautifully mounted, highlighting a rustic production design and expressive locations, bringing out the beauty and mud-caked misfortune of the journey. Like most of Spielberg’s efforts, it carries a pristine filmmaking craftsmanship that’s always compelling, and the war footage is truly harrowing, treating the slaughter of innocents with the austerity it deserves. Nevertheless, the movie is bookended with heartfelt encounters that fail to achieve their intended sensitivity, with the core spirit of companionship blocked by the obesity of the story and Spielberg’s rustiness with such pronounced acts of affection.

Starring: Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston, Niels Arestrup, Benedict Cumberbatch
Director: Steven Spielberg

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War Horse, Forum Discussions

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WAR HORSE Review Thread (Spoilers) 107 Jan 31, 2012

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