There is much you can tell about a movie from its start, the music, the images, and the tone. In Steven Spielberg’s new film War Horse, everything you need to know is spelled out in the first three minutes of dialogue and scenes. We have an over the top image of the countryside with overly cheerful but semi-epic music, giving the sense of a journey but with no real danger. (To bring this point home, the music is repeated several times over the course of the film, doing nothing to make the movie more intense, and gets very repetitive.) This sequence goes on for a while and we get to see a boy, Albert (Jeremy Irving), watching a horse grow up, and him obviously dreaming of owning him. So when his foolish father buys the horse instead of a work horse, for reasons of vanity, Albert and his new horse Joey instantly bond, as Albert tries to train him to be a work horse.
These sequences before the war could be ripped from any over the top story about a young boy trying to prove to the world his animal can do something. For good measure, we have the following by-the-book characters: a drunken father who is still “non-threatening,” a goose that chases people, and the pièce de résistance, an evil landlord desperate for them to fail. These moments really add nothing to the film but to show Albert with his horse, and to set up the idea that this is some sort of miraculous horse, so when it is repeated a million other times in the film we will believe it.
Albert, for being the most central figure, is the most boring character in the entire film; he is not a character but a prop to move around, spout his love of Joey, and get upset that the horse is gone. He has no strong feelings about his family, his friends, and, later, his fellow soldiers, unless it relates to the horse. What is worse is that nothing seems to affect him. Even in the horror of war, when he loses people he knows and is injured, we do not see him react in any way. By giving him no personality other than his love for Joey, it is impossible to take him seriously, and the emotional pull we should be having about him and the horse never materializes.
This is a movie that is ripe for emotional manipulation, but it fails, not just with Albert, but with everything else as well. Joey ends up being bought into the British army and ends up switching owners and sides in the war numerous times to examine the war from different perspectives, but with any of the other temporary owners of Joey, the time spent with them is usually sparse and we have little time to grow to care about their situation or their feelings towards the horse. Even the horse we have no real attachment to. Several times, the events that happen to these new owners are glossed over or hidden ,so the results are lessened at every turn. Whenever the horse switches owners, the movie chooses to focus on those characters, and the horse almost feels like a background character, so him being a force to connect these people becomes more of a gimmick. By the time we do focus on Joey, the film has reached a point that you have just stopped caring and are desperate for anything unpredictable to happen.
If the spectacle of the war had had a major part to play, you could overlook the characters being caricatures and props, but besides one ten to twenty minute sequence in the trenches, there is little of the war that is examined. It is more incidental that the war is going on to explain the horse changing owners. Even the deaths of men and animals doesn’t make the war feel real. Too often, the deaths are so easily set up that it is not a shock that the deaths happen, and are so quickly done, with so little reaction, that they leave no impact.
This is the core problem of the film that I kept trying to figure out: what is Spielberg trying to get us to focus on? The war is incidental, the characters are either not focused on or are so one-note as to have no emotional attachment, and the horse, a beautiful majestic creature and an easy emotional pull for any audience, is so background that for a movie about him, it is hard to focus on any real, strong moments. We then have three “emotional moments” that prolong the ending, but have such a predictability to them that it is hard to get involved in them, and it simply serves to keep the movie going even longer.
If Spielberg wasn’t the director here, the early buzz this movie has been getting would not exist, but since it is Spielberg and he is doing a war movie, of course we can overlook the weaker moments of the film. This might work for him, but there are no strong moments to be found, and in the end, here is a film so limp that it is a struggle to think what this film is.
Final Grade: D-