‘War Horse’ an uneven gallop

Article Published: Dec. 29, 2011 | Modified: Dec. 29, 2011
‘War Horse’ an uneven gallop

Jeremy Irvine stars in ‘War Horse.’

Call me a neigh-sayer.

“War Horse” is a technically brilliant film, beautifully shot and masterfully framed.

Concerning the narrative, however, director Steven Spielberg (“Schindler’s List”) has gotten a little too technical with a calculated gallop through audiences’ hearts.

Though a love letter to the sweeping epics of yesteryear, what with over-emoting actors, saccharine-sweet sentimentality and character archetypes direct from the vault, “War Horse” doesn’t shy away from depicting the brutality of war.

Set in Europe during World War I, it plays like a violent Disney movie. Imagine “Lassie on D-Day” or “The Incredible Journey through Danang.”

Spielberg attempts to balance the family friendly epic with harsh reality – and almost succeeds with some brilliantly staged shots – but the resulting combination comes out at an uneven gait.

“War Horse” is the story of a remarkably intelligent and steadfast colt named Joey, whose journey takes him from the serene hills of southern England to war-torn France to the deathly trenches at the frontlines of World War I.

As soon as Joey is born, he catches the eye of farmer’s son Albert (relative newcomer Jeremy Irvine). When Albert’s father (Peter Mullan, “Children of Men”) buys Joey for plow work, Albert and his equine pal forge an unlikely friendship for the ages.

But when war is declared with Germany, Joey is sold into the British cavalry against the wishes of Albert, who vows they will meet again some day.

The story follows Joey on his intense journey through World War I, as he encounters numerous characters whose lives are touched – and changed – by their meeting. This includes a British cavalry officer (Tom Hiddleston, “Thor”), a French farmer (Niels Arestup, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”) and his granddaughter (newcomer Celine Buckens), a German horse handler (Nicolas Bro, “Truth About Men”) and a British infantryman (Toby Kebbell, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”).

Joey prompts them to see things differently, which Spielberg makes quite apparent following a harrowing journey into No Man’s Land. Through Joey’s eyes, the audience is given a different perspective on humanity – for better and worse.

The film’s presentation is phenomenal, especially evident in Spielberg’s PG-13 depiction of R-rated events. He doesn’t sugarcoat the war, but rather presents its horrors artistically, like a firing squad filmed from behind a windmill, with one of its blades obscuring the action but not the effect. The same goes for an ill-fated cavalry charge, as rider-less horses effectively convey the off-screen slaughter.

The battle scenes themselves are graphic and gripping, not so much gory, but haunting in their showcase of trench warfare and its deadly absurdity.

“War Horse” is a very well made and polished movie, but its screenplay – based on a children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo – seems designed to tug on noted heartstrings, almost as if following a recipe.

The Disney sentiment doesn’t mesh well with Spielberg’s gritty take on World War I, especially when the film’s leads adopt a melodramatic, Disney-ish style of acting. As Albert, Irvine seems like a manchild version of Timmy from “Lassie,” while David Thewlis (the “Harry Potter” series) plays a cruel land baron who may as well be tying a damsel to a train track. With the exception of Joey (a horse, mind you), the characters are too flat to foster any connection with an audience.

All the pieces are there for a solid Spielberg film, right down to another superb John Williams (“Raiders of the Lost Ark”) score. It’s just that some of those pieces don’t fit, maybe a case of putting the cart before the horse.

“War Horse,” rated PG-13 for intense sequences of war violence, is playing at Regal Cinema 7 in Boone. For show times, visit http://www.mountaintimes.com/movies.

I noticed a few viewers remaining through the credits to see if animals were harmed in production. According to the filmmakers, animal sequences were monitored and approved by the Humane Society.

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