Like many of Steven Spielberg's films, War Horse wears its heart on its sleeve and does so proudly. Spielberg doesn't mind if some would describe it as overly sentimental. In fact, that's kind of the point. Any time you place the dramatic weight on anything on an animal, especially one as regal as a horse, people are going to get emotional. The two dozen or so people in tears throughout the last fifteen or so minutes in my theater are proof of this.
Spielberg typically thinks big, and War Horse is his latest grand scale film about human drama, except where the narrative is tied together by the improbable journey of one horse. We follow the horse, named Joey, from his birth through multiple different stories related only by his inclusion and the fact that they are all influenced in some capacity by the first World War.
We see his upbringing by a boy named Albert (Jeremy Irvine) after his father unwisely bought Joey at a town auction to spite their landlord. Next is the horse's subsequent purchase by a compassionate captain (Tom Hiddleston) at the beginning of the war, followed by Joey's time on a quaint farm with a young French girl named Emilie. We care for most of these characters in some capacity, but it's the horse's journey that truly draws us in.
In fact, we care more about what happens to Joey than we do about the humans, which we realize during the massive battle sequences.
I definitely was not as affected by Spielberg's baiting sentimentality as others in my theater were, but despite that, I thoroughly enjoyed War Horse. It's not quite the emotional masterpiece it strives to be, but it has moments where it definitely leans in that direction. It takes a definite suspension of reality to believe in Joey's journey. There are so many perfect coincidences that lead from where the story begins to where it ends that it is hardly believable.
But that's not the purpose. The purpose is to show the humanity that Joey is able to bring out of nearly every character we meet, even in the toughest of times. There is hardly good versus bad here, which is evidenced in a sequence between an English and a German soldier. We don't necessarily root for one side or the other during the war. Joey makes us forget about sides. We root only for him.
One of my biggest issues with the film is that I flat out didn't care for Jeremy Irvine as Albert, who basically plays second billing to the horse. It's not that he's a particularly bad actor, I just didn't find him to be a particularly good one either. Luckily, some excellent supporting performances by Hiddleston, Peter Mullan as Albert's alcoholic father, and Niels Arestrup as Emilie's grandfather, among others, just about make up for Irvine.
The film looks wonderful, and the cinematography may actually be its strongest aspect. The lengthy, extensive battle sequences, although there are only a few, are the most gripping sequences in the film, approaching Saving Private Ryan levels of quality—minus the graphic war violence. There is little blood, if any. There are moments where the sentimentality reaches full blown cheese, including the laughable, albeit gorgeously shot final sequence. And at close to two and a half hours, it feels overlong and tedious at times (it isn't until roughly an hour or so in that the war actually begins).
Overall, the positives outweigh the negatives, and War Horse proves to a moving, sprawling tale that will undoubtedly find its place in the hearts of many an audience.
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