This horse went to war.
“Some pig.” Remember when Charlotte wove that web? Well, replace “pig” with “horse” and you’ve got the reaction director Steven Spielberg aims to get out of his audience following each and every scene in War Horse, which features about a dozen climaxes, each signaled by a massive crescendo in the romantic score by Spielberg’s longtime collaborator John Williams.
War Horse comprises a bunch of loosely connected scenes following a young colt named Joey from his early days as an English farm boy before ultimately getting drafted into first World War and making his long, long trip back home. Joey is befriended and trained from a young age by a teenage boy named Albert (newcomer Jeremy Irvine), whose father breaks his heart by selling the horse to a British soldier (Thor‘s Tom Hiddleston) when the family falls on tough times.
After his stint with the British army, Joey gets passed from a pair of teenage German soldiers to a young girl with brittle bone disease, back to pulling heavy machinery for the German army. That’s right, the horse flipped sides in the middle of the war. The many humans Joey meets along the way are treated as disposable commodities when compared to the majestic hoofed hero and hardly qualify as “characters.” They’re introduced, given some shallow back-story and quickly die off. But Joey lives on.
About an hour after we thought we’d heard the last of him, Albert is seen fighting in the trenches. The nicely done war sequences are just as exhilarating as you’d expect from the director of Saving Private Ryan, and the film’s era makes for breath of fresh air as World War I is massively underrepresented in major film. But it’s a foregone conclusion that he and Joey will find each other in the end, which turns the film into an exhausting matter of “how many things can we put in their way?” Barbed wire, temporary loss of vision, the film’s second major bidding war — trust me, it’s a lot.
Irvine lacks the charisma to carry the human portion of the story and while Joey is certainly a magnificent horse, he just doesn’t make for a compelling film character. The story makes several attempts to inject him with some personality, as when the young girl tries to teach him to jump over a bar and he simply runs around it, but they just feel forced.
I have no problem with sentimentality when I’m able to make an emotional connection to the story. Hell, Hugo and We Bought a Zoo are recent successes on that level. I just never felt like Spielberg established what made this horse so special. Or is it merely the fact that he refuses to die? Does Joey soldier on when other horses would just roll over and die? Hard to say. I don’t know that many horses.
Personally, I found Albert’s duck, constantly chasing and chomping at the pant legs of the family’s visitors, the film’s most entertaining character. I guess “Spunky Ducky” just doesn’t have the same wide appeal as “War Horse.”