Starring: Emily Watson, David Thewlis, Peter Mullan, Niels Arestrup, Tom Hiddleston
Rated: PG-13, for intense sequences of war violence
Runtime: 2 hours, 26 minutes
Bottom line: A saccharin-coated disappointment
"War Horse" should be great.
Steven Spielberg directs. It's based on a Michael Morpurgo novel that has already been adapted into a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical. Lee Hall ("Billy Elliott") and Richard Curtis ("Notting Hill," "Love Actually") collaborated on the screenplay.
The cast, which includes David Thewlis, Emily Watson, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Kross and Niels Arestrup, is international and incredibly talented. The horse of the title is a spectacular specimen.
So why is the film so dreadful?
As usual, the problems begin with the story. Morpurgo's 1982 novel has never won a major award and sold few copies until it was adapted into a play a few years ago. In other words, it achieved nothing noteworthy on its own merits.
The tale centers around a thoroughbred horse that is rather foolishly bought at auction by a poor English farming family. The family's only son, teenaged Albert (Jeremy Irvine), loves the horse, which he names Joey, and teaches him to pull a plow.
Just as Joey has begun to brighten the family's future, World War I breaks out. The father (Peter Mullan) sells Joey to the military, which sets Joey on a meandering, consistently depressing journey through WWI.
Joey befriends another horse and protects him at various moments. An English officer (Hiddleston) rides Joey into battle. A German regiment uses Joey to haul massive cannons and other armaments. A Frenchman (Arestrup) and his granddaughter (Celine Buckens) adopt Joey for a time.
All the while, we're supposed to fear Joey won't survive, get a glimpse of the horrors of modern warfare, and wonder whether Joey and Albert will ever be reunited.
The film is episodic, moving from one group of characters to another. A couple episodes work, but most do not.
The audience for this movie, if it has one at all, is extremely small.
The tone is akin to "Black Beauty" or similar live action animal movies. The main character is a horse, after all, and this is a ridiculously melodramatic movie. The dialogue and acting offer all the sophistication of a Mentos commercial.
This could have been made into a suitable movie for family with young children, but it is not. I repeat: this is not a movie for young children.
"War Horse" is rated PG-13 because of its intense scenes of war violence. The human body count isn't very high, but we see Joey and the other horses in extreme peril and deadly situations. It is a real possibility that Joey will be killed by bullets, by a bomb, or simply by being worked to death.
One scene, in which Joey gets tangled in barbed wire between opposing front lines, is difficult to watch even for adults.
Those hoping the movie will capture some of the magic that has made the play so successful will be profoundly disappointed. Apparently, the centerpiece of the musical is the ground-breaking puppetry used to create the horses. Spielberg doesn't attempt to incorporate the puppetry or any other such avant garde technique.
He tells the movie realistically and strives relentlessly to tug at our hearts, as he always does. It isn't moving, it's condescending and annoying.
Equally grating is the film's 146-minute running time. On top of everything else, "War Horse" is exhausting.
That leaves almost no group of moviegoers to whom I would recommend this movie.
It certainly isn't escapist Christmas viewing. This is Spielberg, so you know he is going to try to lift your spirits in the end, but the payoff is not worth sitting through the over two hours of schlock that precedes the finale.
Dreamworks has spent tens of millions and several months marketing the film, so it might do well on opening weekend. But this is an epic, sugar-coated failure that isn't worthy of its director or its cast.
Jeff Marker teaches film and literature at Gainesville State College. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.