Based on the children’s novel and stage play of the same name, War Horse chronicles the unexpectedly adventurous journey of a horse named Joey during World War I. It may be told through the eyes of a colt, but it is ultimately a narrative Hollywood knows by heart. Joey is introduced as an untamed underdog, acting both as a punchline for the townspeople and an object of affection for the young boy who raises him. But when Joey is sold to the calvary, their love story is torn apart, set for an uncertain future with lingering hopes that they would meet again.
For anyone who has ever had a pet, War Horse will hit home and undoubtedly cause a symphony of sniffles when it opens Christmas Day. Spielberg is manipulative in the most obvious of ways, using his whole playbook of thumping music, picturesque scenery, and horses that eskimo kiss just to elicit rehearsed reactions from his audiences. You may grab your tissues, say “aw” when Spielberg prompts you to say “aw”, and not care one iota for its predictable (and by extension, condescending) nature. But for the rest of us, we will logically resist the sentimental tugs. Blame it on the lackluster first act or suspect acting, but I find no reason to remain emotionally attached to our protagonist (outside of it being, you know, an adorable horse). Once we sift through the tedious start, War Horse begins to pick up its pace and settle into a more compelling tone before culminating into an annoyingly convenient end.
Sure, War Horse has plenty of redeeming factors. In many ways, this was Spielberg’s best work since Minority Report, though that’s not saying a lot. He has a remarkable vision for shooting a war on the frontlines and has accomplished an impressive feat in centering his story around a live-action mammal. There are few other directors who can explore the grandeur of a setting while focusing on a singular, specific emotion. That being said…so what? So what if I witness a film’s grandiosity and imagination if I cannot drown in it. I remembered sweating with Corporal Timothy Upham (Saving Private Ryan), running scared with the Murphy siblings (Jurassic Park), and enduring the weight of responsibility with Oskar Schindler (Schindler’s List). But in War Horse, I always felt at arms length apart, with Spielberg and its British actors and even the horses screaming at me “Hey, you! Care!” But I didn’t. I couldn’t. Not sure many could either.