In his long, lauded career, Steven Spielberg has made his share of bad movies: the bloated, unfunny war spoof 1941; the cloyingly whimsical romances Always and The Terminal; the shockingly inept Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. But Spielberg has never made anything that's bad in the way of War Horse — a magnificently mounted yet utterly soulless shell; a production that seems to have been created using a "make your own epic" kit.
The elements are all here for a big classic — the historical setting; the golden-lit vistas; the "serious" themes of friendship, loyalty and bravery — but nothing quite works. If you didn't know Spielberg had directed it, you'd think it was made by someone doing a bad impression of the maestro.
Based on a young-adult novel by Michael Morpurgo, which was adapted to the London stage and then Broadway, War Horse at first seems to be just another story of an unbreakable equine-human bond. (The adaptation is by Lee Hall, who wrote Billy Elliot, and Richard Curtis, who wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral.)
In World War I-era England, struggling farmer Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) bids at auction against his landlord (David Thewlis) for an unruly horse that wouldn't seem to be of much practical use. But Ted's teen son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) bonds with the animal, names him Joey and steadily teaches him to plow the fields. Cue the bombastic, bouncy music by John Williams, making it clear you're supposed to find this section of the film charming and inspiring.
Inevitably, Albert and Joey get separated, and Joey ends up on an odyssey through wartime France. The strings start swelling on the soundtrack, letting us know we're supposed to feel sad and anxious. Will boy and horse ever be reunited? Does man's warlike nature obviate any hope for humanity?
Has Spielberg ever so baldly telegraphed a movie's thematic messages and emotional shifts?
Perhaps had he taken a more modest approach — or, alternately, had he pulled out all of the stops and created something truly over the top and soaring — War Horse might have been at least entertaining; a silly but sweet melodrama that passes the time. But Spielberg gets caught in a dreadful no-man's land, treating the material far too seriously while putting forth a vision that feels oddly underpowered.
The battle sequences, for instance, featuring bayonet-bearing, cavalry-mounted soldiers on the one side coming up against machine guns and cannons on the other, have an oddly workmanlike feel, almost as if the director watched Barry Lyndon or his own Saving Private Ryan, and thought, "I can't top that, so there's no use trying."
Many other episodes in the movie, meanwhile, are so solemn and portentous that they turn laughable. Joey helps a pair of enlisted brothers escape from the army (he's a symbol for pacifist resistance!). Joey brings a small measure of joy to a girl whose parents have been killed (he's a symbol for innocence lost!). Every time the movie offers a measure of quiet grace — a shot of Joey framed against a purple- orange sunset, say — Williams' score pipes up again and pokes us in the ribs.
As the human hero, newcomer Irvine barely has any grasp of the character: Is Albert supposed to be a simpleton who connects with the horse on a primal level, or is he just a happy-go-lucky kid who doesn't want to part with his pet? (Most of the other human actors, including Emily Watson as Albert's mother, and Niels Arestrup as one of the horses' interim keepers, barely make an impression.) Nor does Spielberg seem to realize the challenge of making a movie in which the horse is the central character. He finds creative angles to photograph the beast but no real way to convey Joey's personality.
Even when he's off his game, Spielberg usually gives you something to hang your hat on.
War Horse, unfortunately, is empty to its lovely-looking core.