Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jeremy Irvine, Peter Mullan, Emily Watson, Niels Arestrup, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Celine Buckens, Toby Kebbell, Patrick Kennedy, Leonard Carow, David Kross, Matt Milne, Robert Emms, Eddie Marsan, Nicolas Bro, Rainer Bock, Hinnerk Schšnemann, Gary Lydon, Geoff Bell, Liam Cunningham, Sebastian HŸlk, Gerard McSorley, Tony Pitts, Irfan Hussein, Pip Torrens, Philippe Nahon, Jean-Claude Lecas
Written by: Lee Hall, Richard Curtis, based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of war violence
Running Time: 146
Date: 12/04/2011

War Horse (2011)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Gallop Pull

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Released the same week as his triumphant new The Adventures of Tintin, Steven Spielberg's War Horse is, on the other hand, his most so-so work in some time. Spielberg has spent his career juggling popcorn movies and "serious" movies, or to put it another way, kid movies and adult movies. War Horse is stuck in the middle. It comes from a "young adult" novel, and was adapted into a stage play. It's not quite a kids' movie and not quite an adult movie.

As a result, the director cooks up some of his most beautiful, inspired passages, but spends most of the rest of the running time -- 146 minutes of it -- pandering to his idea of a "young" audience. Moreover, the stage portion gets in the way as well, and the movie feels alternately realistic and enclosed, failing to find a balance between the two.

Albert (Jeremy Irvine) is the teen boy whose poor, farmer father (Peter Mullan), in a fit of pride, bids far more money on a horse than he can possibly afford. But it's a magnificent horse, and Albert takes it upon himself to bond with the animal and train it, and to turn it into a farm horse (though everyone says it's impossible). If Albert can't do this, then the greedy landlord (David Thewlis) will take the farm. Albert's feisty mother (Emily Watson) reluctantly agrees.

The results of Albert's labors notwithstanding, his father eventually sells the animal to the military on the eve of the First World War. Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) sees Albert's dedication to the horse and promises to return him someday. This promise lasts about ten more minutes of screen time before it is broken forever, and the horse begins his journey across Europe, jumping from owner to owner. It's a story not unlike Robert Bresson's Au hasard Balthazar (1966), but without the poetry, or depth, or soul. Whereas Bresson's donkey seemed to carry the burden of human suffering, Spielberg's war horse is nothing more than a pretty animal, and a conversation piece for the human characters.

The best scene comes when the horse makes a mad dash across no man's land, between two trenches. Spielberg's use of movement and light is truly astonishing, and it's impossible not to be moved as the horse plunges through sections of barbed wire and becomes hopelessly entangled. Then, a British soldier and a German soldier climb from their trenches to join forces and gently, painstakingly cut him free. The dialogue -- from Richard Curtis -- during this scene is playful, like some of the finest of old time war movies, with the soldiers cracking deadpan jokes at one another to ease the tension.

However, for most of the rest of the movie, Spielberg relies on his talent to elicit surprise and tears, but does it in an almost lazy, condescending way, as if he doesn't particularly care if his sleight of hand shows. Fairly often, Spielberg uses crane shots to show the enormity of the battlefield and the drama of what's going on, but instead of the emotions of the scene, all I could think about was Spielberg -- probably wearing a War Horse baseball cap -- riding high up on a crane. I could use words like "cloying" and "goopy" here, and that would probably do the trick in describing the tone. He even uses a fairly obvious Gone with the Wind image at the closing.

Not giving young viewers the benefit of the doubt, assuming that they don't think, is a rookie mistake that Spielberg should have avoided. At this point he certainly should know better. But even while spending too much time calculating, he managed to find some of the most glorious imagery of his career. And that just about makes War Horse worth seeing.

Touchstone and Dreamworks have teamed up for a spectacular-looking four-disc package, including a digital copy, a DVD, and two Blu-Ray discs. The movie comes on one disc, and there are many featurettes that feature Spielberg as well as most major members of the cast and crew. All die-hard Spielberg fans should check this out.

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