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One of the movie’s great charms is the way in which it echoes elements of Spielberg’s Indiana Jones films, especially in the water-lashed seafaring scenes and a sun-baked trek through the Moroccan desert. The digitized environments teem with lifelike detail, and the action choreography and acrobatic camera movement can only elicit wonderment.
But the incessant uproar and overextended chases and escapes grow tedious after a while, and the constant presence of the blabbering Captain Haddock (“I know these waters better than the warts on me mother’s face”) becomes a sizable annoyance. Even the kids who are this film’s intended audience may turn out to have their limits when it comes to such clamorous overkill.
Before I embark on my daily round of puppy-kicking and unicorn-strangling, I have to say that in sitting through Spielberg’s second new release, War Horse, I felt as if I were being lowered into a vat of warm tears, there to remain for nearly two and a half freakin’ hours. This is a movie so boldly old-fashioned that much of its true target demographic must be long dead, or nearly enough.
It’s a movie about a noble horse and the boy who loves him. Well, the boy and the girl and a few other people who love him. The horse—one Joey—is conscripted into the British cavalry and dispatched to help fight World War I. Joey has many dangerous adventures, and the picture is in fact most effective in conveying, however discreetly, the horrors of the Great War—the mustard-gassed trenches, the mounted soldiers swinging outmoded swords in the face of enemy artillery. That’s not the problem; the movie is beautifully made. The problem is the story, which is an episodic sprawl, and its dripping sentimentality, a quality that Spielberg is unsurprisingly disinclined to mitigate.
In the 1982 book on which the film is based, the horse was the narrator, I gather. In the 2007 London stage play that was made from the book (and which has since collected a number of Tony Awards on Broadway), the story’s several horses are depicted by ingeniously designed, life-size puppets. Spielberg rightly decided that real horses would be required for the film version, and his ability to turn one of them (or several, actually) into a lead presence is remarkable.
We first meet Joey as a spirited colt in the rolling green hills of Devonshire, where he bonds with a good-hearted farm boy named Albert (newcomer Jeremy Irvine). Albert is bereft when Joey is auctioned off to a good-hearted cavalry captain named Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston, who played Scott Fitzgerald in Midnight in Paris). Transported to the war-torn continent, Joey falls into the hands of a good-hearted young German soldier named Berg (David Kross), and then into the care of a spunky French farm girl named Emilie (Celine Buckens, another newcomer). By this point, we’ve learned that Albert has left his own farm to join the army and scour the continental battlefields in search of his beloved steed. Anyone who has seen the 1943 Lassie Come Home—of which one contemporary critic said, “only the hardest heart can fail to be moved”—will know how this tale is heading.
As shot by Spielberg’s longtime cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, War Horse swells with a love landscape, particularly in the early Devon section, that might have drawn an appreciative sigh from John Ford. But the movie’s unabashed weepiness, which John Williams’ syrupy score shamelessly heightens, may prove tough going for viewers unaccustomed to such anachronistic heart-tugging. Compounding that problem, the picture goes on far too long; and while I understand the soggy appreciation of many who’ve seen it, after about an hour or so I found myself unable to go along with it.