In my continuing reviews of Academy Award-nominated films we've come to Steven Spielberg's big budget, massive Christmas-release film about a boy and his horse, based on the children's book by Michael Morpurgo. It's Spielberg doing what he does best - a GIANT movie, with a multi-year time span, huge battle scenes, dozens of characters, hundreds of horses and an ending we all see coming a mile away.
The story is pretty straight forward. Set in England at the dawn of World War I, a drunken farmer buys a racehorse instead of the plow animal he needs. The farmer's son Albert, played by newcomer Jeremy Irvine, trains the poorly behaved horse to plow and names him Joey. Unfortunately after massive rains, the farmer's fields are ruined and he is forced to sell Joey to the British as a cavalry mount. Joey and Albert are tearfully separated and Joey heads off to France.
Following an inept attempt by the British to take a German camp, Joey and another horse are captured and used by the Germans pulling an ambulance until they are taken by young German deserters. After that adventure ends badly, a young French farm girl Emilie (played by another newcomer Celine Buckens) finds Joey and his equine sidekick. When the German army plunders the farm for supplies, Emilie secrets the horses in her bedroom.
Unfortunately, on her first ride on Joey, Emilie is found by the Germans, who take the horses and press them into service towing tanks. Years pass and coincidentally Joey and his former owner Albert find themselves on the opposite sides of a terrible trench warfare battle. Albert and his village buddies have somehow survived years of battle together and charge across no-mans land and take the German positions only to be gassed and blinded.
Joey, spooked by a tank and upset by the death of his companion, charges though no-mans land and is ensnared in the barbed wire between the two enemy positions. A British soldier comes out under a white flag to try to help the horse and is aided by a German who actually thought to bring some wire cutters. After the horse is freed, they argue over who gets to take him back to their trench. Ultimately the Brit wins the coin toss and Joey heads back to the British trenches. There, word of his heroic charge though the wire is told and re-told among the wounded until Albert hears it.
Albert, temporarily blinded by the the mustard gas, still somehow KNOWS this is his long-lost Joey and opportunely whistles for him just as Joey is about to be put down. We all know how this one ends.
And despite the Hollywood ending, all the beautiful horses, the expansive scenery and chilling war sequences, the magnificent cinematography, and the soaring John Williams score, 'War Horse' somehow misses. It's a bit too dark, sad and violent. Despite the attempts to show how strong, yet empathetic Joey is, I never really get a good feeling for the horse as a character. Again, despite Spielberg's attempts to give some dimension to the human characters, they are dwarfed by all that is going on around them.
As I said, it's a big film, ultimately too big for the rather one dimensional characters that live in it. At almost 2 1/2 hours, there was time to get us to care about these people, but the story about Albert's dad, the alcoholic farmer, and his service in Africa seems just too simple. It might help if Irvine could act at all, but sadly he comes off as a bit dull-witted, and not in an interesting or happy way.
I think that this COULD have been a great movie, but the decision seems to have been made to try to re-make All Quiet on the Western Front in France, telling a story about how horrible World War I was to all involved, rather than telling the simple story about a boy who loses his beloved horse only to be reunited after years apart. See 'War Horse' for what it is, a blockbuster movie about World War I that has a lot of horses, green pastures and muddy battles in it. But don't take the kids, despite its origins as a children's book, this movies is not for the faint of heart.