For anyone willing to invest in another rich and evocative Spielberg historical drama, there's no doubt that War Horse is sure to deliver one of the most compelling film experiences of the year.
Only days after releasing the kid-friendly film, The Adventures of TinTin, Steven Spielberg returns with a heavier (and very much NOT kid-friendly) dramatic offering, War Horse - a World War I drama based on a children's book by Michael Morpurgo (which also inspired a stage play from Nick Stafford).
While many film fans tend to most fondly remember Spielberg's lighthearted sci-fi and action-adventure titles (such as E.T. and the Indiana Jones series), many of the Oscar-winner's most celebrated works have been hard-hitting period dramas. Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List were recognized by the Academy as well as other awards organizations and, despite violent historical narratives, also drew tremendous numbers at the box office. Has Spielberg managed to once again blend evocative and entertaining period drama in War Horse? Or is the film too dismal and emotionally manipulative to actually move audiences?
Fortunately, War Horse succeeds at offering a compelling look at multiple facets of World War I - as the titular war horse, Joey, encounters a number of different people (each with their own intriguing relationship to the war) throughout his travels. The War Horse story begins when Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) suddenly becomes the young owner of an untrained and unruly horse. The pair form a tight bond - as the stubborn animal helps Albert beat the odds and save his parents from financial ruin by plowing a rocky patch of dirt behind their farm.
Despite their victory, as the European countryside becomes a staging ground for World War I, Joey is effectively enlisted in the British army - acting as the battle horse for Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) and leaving Albert (too young to fight) behind. Nicholls is only the first of many people (and subsequently stories) that Joey touches as he traverses one of the most horrifying human conflicts in history. The vignettes are masterfully woven together, and despite jumping from person to person, successfully balance Joey's experience with the overarching effect the war is having on people from all walks of life (a farmer and a young German soldier, among others).
That said, the marketing for the film (coupled with the children's book source material) might lead some moviegoers to think that War Horse is a mostly lighthearted and inspiring adventure suitable for older children - which, for anyone familiar with the stage adaptation that inspired Spielberg's movie, would be a mistake. There is a huge difference between having scenes of animals and people in peril in a children's book (or portrayed by puppets in a stage play) - and having live human and animal actors in the same situations in a very realistic-looking film. For casual audiences, War Horse may actually be one of the heavier and more challenging films of the year - as the World War seemingly destroys everything in its wake (soldiers, innocents, and animals alike). The heavy tone and heart-wrenching moments don't detract from the overall success of the film, but for sensitive viewers, it's important to note that the War Horse marketing definitely makes the movie look significantly lighter than what actually plays out onscreen.
The unrelenting tone is almost certainly intentional and actually helps to ground audiences in the horrors of World War I. However, there's no doubt that each of the vignettes can be exceptionally draining - especially because the terrible deeds of man far outweigh any moments of levity. The director does manage to imbue a number of the characters with enjoyable and lively personalities (even in the face of the dangers at hand); however, even the most hopeful and cheerful of the War Horse personalities are ultimately overrun by the overarching war machine. As a result, the film can at times come across as a continuous descent into increasingly horrifying human experiences.
That's not to say that there aren't a number of lighthearted moments as well - mainly due to the success of the equine actors coupled with some inspired performances from their human counterparts. Joey exudes a tremendous amount of personality, especially considering the character is actually a composite of fourteen different horse performers, and provides interesting and believable reactions to the various scenarios portrayed onscreen. Unsurprisingly, Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski make use of the horses to great effect - whether to showcase the majesty and beauty of the animals at play or to juxtapose the horror that befell working animals in the early days of mechanized war machines.
Despite featuring an equine protagonist, the War Horse story is still largely about the human condition in World War I, and Spielberg lined up a compelling roster of talent to play off of the Joey character in a myriad of different dramatic opportunities (detestable and sympathetic alike). Jeremy Irvine is competent in the lead role as Albert - even in spite of a few hammy and overly eager moments in his performance. There's no doubt the actor had a stiff challenge ahead of him in selling the emotional bond between Albert and Joey - and Irvine does his best with what he's been given, even if Albert is still the least interesting character that Joey interacts with throughout the film.
Once the film gets rolling, War Horse moves at a brisk pace as Joey collides with a one intriguing character, and subsequently talented performer, after another - most notably Tom Hiddleston's Captain Nicholls. It's an especially intriguing opportunity for fans who don't remember Hiddleston from any of his pre-Loki work (which included a lot of TV movie roles) - since Nicholls allows the actor another opportunity (next to Midnight in Paris) to showcase his dramatic chops as a compassionate, charming, and emotive character. Spielberg also rounded-up a stable of international talent, young and old, to headline roles in each of the subsequent vignettes including French thespian Niels Arestrup and German actor David Kross, among countless others.
War Horse offers a number of memorable moments both tragic and profound. However, even the most inspiring moments are wrought with the horror of the war at hand, and as mentioned before, the movie is not a particularly cheerful onscreen experience and we would not recommend it for children.
That said, for anyone willing to invest in another rich and evocative Spielberg historical drama, there's no doubt that War Horse is sure to deliver one of the most compelling film experiences of the year.
If you’re still on the fence about War Horse, check out the trailer below:
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War Horse is now in theaters.