A boy and his beloved horse try to survive World War I in War Horse, a movie about the triumph of the equine spirit.
I’ll pause while you finish making gagging noises.
Albert (Jeremy Irvine) is an “aw shucks” English farm boy who admires a spirited young colt born on a neighboring farm. Imagine his delight when his father, Ted (Peter Mullan), buys the colt. Multiply that delight by two and you have the amount of his mother Rose’s (Emily Watson) dismay — Ted was supposed to buy a sturdy farm horse to help with plowing and whatnot. Instead, he blew a wad of cash — including the rent on the farm — bidding for the horse against Lyons (David Thewils), his landlord. But Ted is a drunk and kind of a knucklehead, so he’s determined to prove that the colt can do the job. Albert takes on the job of training Joey, as he names the horse, and the pair become as tight as — well, as a boy and his horse or a boy and his dog or a boy and his possibly-sentient fighting robot. The horse proves that he’s up to even insane, rock-breaking tasks and also is a pleasure to ride. Albert is all smiles around Joey — but then the war comes.
Ted, desperate for money to pay the bills, leases Joey to Capt. Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston). Nicholls seems to understand the connection Albert has to Joey so he makes a solemn and gentlemanly promise to take care of the horse and bring him back to Albert after the war if he’s able. Unfortunately, once in France we see that while the fancy British officers and their pretty horses are all decked out, swords in hand, to fight for King Henry V in Agincourt, the Germans have big-boy weapons and are prepared to fight a 20th-century war.
Parted from Capt. Nicholls, Joey proceeds to Forrest Gump through the Great War, befriending young German brothers, a French girl and her grandfather, a few kind-hearted Germans, a few mate-y Brits and a friendly fellow horse. Along the way, we see the war progress into the horrors of trench warfare and mustard gas. Eventually, we see Albert in the trenches as well. Through it all, Joey’s will to survive is strong as he rallies America through the Great Depression.
Oh, wait, that was Seabiscuit.
I was not a horse kid. A My Little Pony was the closest I got to wanting a horse and I’m pretty sure the one I had was a unicorn or a Pegasus (or possibly both) and had sparkles — not representatve of any actual interest in any actual horse. Even at that late-elementary school age when it seemed like many girls wanted a real live non-plastic horse, I was more interested in getting a car. So “awww, horsey” is not, for me, a winning theme for a movie, particularly a movie that clocks in at nearly two and a half hours. And “awww, horsey” is basically the story of this movie. Joey, with great bravery and determination or whatever the horse versions of those qualities are, sees both sides of the war while retaining the specialness that made the tipsy Ted want to buy him in the first place. Despite its PG-13 rating (and I’m not sure why, exactly, it was rated PG-13 — it definitely softens the harsher parts of war), War Horse reminded me of those live-action Disney movies, circa, say, Old Yeller, that often focused on a friendship between a kid and his or her pet. They were sweet, often with a hint of melancholy, and made you feel a kind of nostalgia for the dog you never had. They also tended to do this sort of thing in about 90 minutes, which would have made a perfectly fine length for this movie. War Horse also feels old-fashioned in its attempt at the epic sweep but, despite its war setting and its cast of dozens, I think it might have been a more enjoyable, more genuine movie had it trimmed its length and focused on the more personal parts of the story. It also could have easily been knocked down to PG so the parents of the 9- to 12-year-olds who could have made a natural audience for the film would have felt more comfortable bringing them.
As it is, the movie feels overlong and hopelessly maudlin while approaching the horrors of war with an almost comically light hand. We sense, rather than see, how terrible the warfare is — wide shots of dead horses on gray battlegrounds are the movie’s big dramatic gut-punch moment, but instead of really making us feel the awfulness it feels manipulative.
War Horse has the look of an Important and Epic film but it doesn’t really deliver on that promise. C+
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of war violence. Directed by Steven Spielberg with a screenplay by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis (from the novel by Michael Morpurgo), War Horse is two hours and 26 minutes long and distributed by Walt Disney Studios.