‘War Horse’ Review: This Horse Needs to be Put Down
Saving Private Ryan remains arguably the best war movie of all time. It is truly amazing that a disaster as catastrophic as War Horse can come from the same director of that spectacular film. Spielberg’s latest foray into history is an absolute mess. The characters are weak, the story is utterly ridiculous, and the film runs way too long.
For this review I feel it is necessary to get what positives there are out of the way right in the beginning before delving into the overwhelming terribleness. There are two things that War Horse has going for it. The first is John Williams’ enthralling score. The second is the gorgeous cinematography which is as sweeping and epic as it is intimate. It would serve as a perfect window into any story. Combined with the score, these two aspects of the film create a technically stunning experience that only a handful of other films this year have matched.
Too bad every other aspect of War Horse fails to engage. The story starts out fine enough with the birth of Joey, the main horse hero of the film. Joey is raised by Albert (Jeremy Irvine) but when World War I breaks out across Europe, Joey is sold to the army for the troops to ride into battle on. Then the film shifts its focus from Albert to army captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston). Then when the horse leaves his possession, the focus shifts again, and then again. There are two fundamental problems with this style of storytelling. The first is that there is no true human main character, and that leads to the second problem, Spielberg’s intention is for the horse to be the main character.
Most films about animals feature a main human character, usually a young boy, who has a special connection to an animal. War Horse attempts this but when the majority of the film sees the supposed main character off screen we are left with a horse, and horses are not human and therefore will not connect with audiences the same way a human would. Picture Free Willy without the kid connecting to the whale, there is just no reason to care anymore. This is why War Horse is the failure that it is. One might argue that my argument is outdone by this year’s outstanding Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but there is one big difference, a human used motion capture to play the ape, therefore transferring human emotion to an animal. Here we have a horse who just keeps finding himself in sticky situations. By the time any genuine human connection can be seen, two hours have been wasted getting us there.
The performances in War Horse are nothing to write home about, but not bad either. Spielberg seems to be begging his actors for all the emotion they can bear, which makes most of the intense close-ups feel incredibly forced. This might also have to do with the fact that they are playing off of a horse a lot of the time.
The quality of film that used to be associated with the name Spielberg is quickly slipping. This is failed experiment of storytelling on the screen. It simply just does not work having a horse as the main character of a live action drama. If you really need to see some quality animal acting this awards’ season go see Uggie the dog in The Artist. (*1/2 out of 4)
photo credit: http://collider.com/war-horse-movie-image/80052/