Wednesday, February 22, 2012

War Horse

I don't get the appeal of horses.  Maybe I'm just not an animal lover (scratch that --- I'm definitely not an animal lover), but I see horses as walking, pooping, glue factories.  As you might have surmised, I was not looking forward to seeing War Horse.  I assumed that it would be good --- I haven't seen a bad Spielberg movie yet --- but the commercials made it look like a dramatization of Charlotte's Web, from the human point of view: "That sure is some pig horse."

War Horse begins with the birth of Joey, who would one day become England's Secretary of War (Horse) is never actually called "war horse" by anyone important in the movie.  Joey's birth is witnessed by Albert (Jeremy Irvine), a nice local kid with more guts than smarts.  Albert immediately becomes infatuated by Joey, constantly trying to win his affection.  To be honest, young Albert's love of horses borders on the disturbing.
"Let's keep this between you and me"
Albert wins the bestiality lottery when his father gets drunk and bids far too much money for ownership of Joey.  Albert's family lives on a farm and needs a plow horse, not a thoroughbred like Joey, but the horse and Albert surprise everyone except the audience by plowing a difficult field.  This is the first "some horse" moment in the film, but certainly not the last. 
Joey's not running here, but carefully balancing
Eventually, circumstances dictate that Joey must be separated from Albert, thanks to World War I and its insatiable appetite for killing things.  The horse gets drafted, but Albert is too young; the war horse goes to war without his master.  From this point on, we see how Joey impacts the lives of several humans.  He serves with both the English and the German armies, befriends a young girl and her jam-making grandfather, and serves as the stimulus for a Christmas Truce-type scene in the trenches.  All the while, Albert is slowly growing old enough to join the army and, if he's lucky, rejoin his magnificent horse.
It's perfectly fine if you hum the "Theme to Rawhide" while watching this film

That plot breakdown may make it seem like I didn't enjoy War Horse, but I actually did.  The ensemble cast is solid, and the brutality of the war scenes is well-balanced by clever and cute civilian scenes.  This is a movie meant to tug on the heart strings, and tug it does.  So what's my problem, then?  I'll get to it in a bit, but I want to acknowledge what I liked first.

The acting in War Horse doesn't contain any amazing performances, but they were all pretty good.  Jeremy Irvine is likable as the main (human) character, which is essential to the success of the film.  There are far too many moments early in the film where his love of Joey could be construed as romantic, but I thought he was fine otherwise.
This analogue to the Sixteen Candles panty scene was a bit much, though
Ted Narracott was good as Irvine's drunk and gruff father, but Emily Watson was the best supporting actor in the film.  I thought her character grounded the story on the human side of things, adding some much-needed wry humor and solid dramatic chops.
...and glamor.  Don't forget the glamor!
David Thewlis sheds a bit of his fuzzy Harry Potter image by playing the local rich guy and being generally unlikable.  The most promising cast members were definitely the British soliders who don't have much screen time.  Up-and-comers Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston play the thankless role of soldiers who haven't realized that machine gun combat has made cavalry charges useless; neither man is terribly impressive here, but I've liked them quite a bit in other things, so I thought I'd call them out.
L-R: Sherlock Holmes, cannon fodder, and Loki
The rest of the cast was okay, but similarly unremarkable.  Young Celine Buckens gave a cute debut performance, David Kross was good in a surprisingly brief role, and frequent character actors Eddie Marsan and Liam Cunningham make brief appearances before the end.

Steven Spielberg directed War Horse, so you know it's going to look good.  The war scenes looked cool, but were not plentiful enough to change the focus of this movie from a boy and his horse to a war and its horse.  For the record, though, War Horse is probably the most dead horse-filled movie I have ever seen.  Spielberg's always had a good touch with light humor in his action films, and he maintains it here.  The cinematography is pretty, the lighting is noticeably interesting at points (especially the last scene), and the story is suitably emotional. 
And, for little girls, that emotion is "ridiculous horse-caused joy"

The style is awfully retro, though.  War Horse feels more like a John Ford movie than a Spielberg film.  This is the kind of semi-epic, ultra-earnest story that was all the rage in the 50s and 60s, but has fallen out of favor of late because it can seem a bit dated or corny.  And War Horse is kind of dated and corny, so that makes sense.  It's not just that the film is a tad predictable and old-fashioned, it takes itself pretty seriously.  Sure, there are some intentionally funny moments (many involving a goose, a sure sign of broad audience pandering), but there are also some unintentionally funny conceptual moments.  For instance, Joey has a companion horse during the war; that's right, the main character in this war movie inevitably finds a war buddy, and that buddy's character development mirrors that of most "best friend" characters in war movies. 
That horse is one week away from retirement
And then there is John Williams' overeager score; I love me some John Williams, but he lays it on a little thick at the very beginning of the movie, practically screaming at the audience that even the uneventful beginning of this film is epic.  And, of course, there are all the instances where immature jackasses like myself giggled when Albert's affection seemed a little less than chaste.

None of that makes War Horse a bad movie.  While I thought the film was sentimental and nostalgic, I certainly teared up on a few occasions.  This is a well-made movie that hits all the right notes, but just isn't very interesting to me.  On the other hand, I think it is a little funny that, in the same year J.J. Abrams made a movie that waxed nostalgic for Close Encounters, Spielberg wound up making an homage to the emotional epics of yesteryear.  This is a quality picture, just not necessarily as great as it wants to be.

1 comment:

  1. Without a doubt, this is Spielberg trying his hardest to manipulate the hell out of his audience but it somehow works and brought me into the story despite some of the very corny moments. Great review Brian.