Just in time for family-friendly holiday feel-goodery is Steven Spielberg's sweeping, historical epic "War Horse."
It's a story that began life as a children's book by Michael Morpurgo, then made its way to the London and New York stages to great acclaim featuring inventive puppetry, and now arrives in theaters with all the grandeur a master filmmaker can conjure. "War Horse" features a strong cast and the sort of impeccable production values you would expect from Spielberg — that trademark, mystical lighting, the product of his longtime collaboration with Oscar-winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski.
And yet it's overlong, painfully earnest and sometimes even hokey. Clearly, Spielberg intended "War Horse" as a throwback, an homage to good, old-fashioned, heartrending storytelling, full of recognizable types and uplifting themes. The skies are so impossibly colorful in such a retro way, they look like hand-painted backdrops on a soundstage. And the dialogue is so frequently on-the-nose and repetitive, it might just make you cringe.
Yes, the horse is remarkable — of course he is — that's why they made a movie about him. That should have been obvious to us through the action alone, yet the script (from Lee Hall and Richard Curtis) feels the need to tell us again and again that he is a "remarkable" horse.
The majestic Joey comes into the lives of a struggling British farming family just before World War I. The alcoholic father (Peter Mullan) buys him at auction, even though he knows he can't afford him; the long-suffering mother (Emily Watson) insists he return him and get the family's money back. But plucky teenager Albert (good-looking newcomer Jeremy Irvine) begs to keep him and promises to train him. Cue the montage.
Although Joey is clearly a spectacular creature, the father ends up selling him to the British cavalry because the family needs the money. Albert is devastated and swears they'll meet again; the conscientious captain (Tom Hiddleston), who immediately recognizes Joey's greatness and chooses him as his own mount, promises to take good care of him until then.
Joey, meanwhile, thrives once more in this new setting on the front lines. And these moments are some of the film's best — the ones where the Spielberg of "Saving Private Ryan" comes shining through. An overhead shot of row after row of soldiers saddling up as one while hidden in a wheat field is especially stirring, as is their subsequent ambush on a German encampment. The battle scenes are reliably visceral and well-staged, albeit in a sanitized way. Even a race between Joey and the impressive horse belonging to the cocky major (Benedict Cumberbatch) provides a quick, thunderous thrill.
There's a reason so many movies get made about horses: They're beautiful, powerful creatures, and the pounding of hooves gets your heart pounding, as well.
But speaking of Joey and his new rival, their relationship represents one of the more cloying aspects of "War Horse": the incessant anthropomorphism of these animals. Would they really achieve a hard-won respect for each other and end up protecting one another in the thick of battle? Maybe. Maybe not. But the human assumption that they would just for the sake of furthering the narrative is sort of obnoxious.
Eventually, Joey changes hands again and ends up living on a farm with an adorable but sickly French girl (Cecile Buckens) and her doting grandfather (Niels Arestrup). But then he's captured once more — this time by the Germans — and forced to fight again. This sets up the film's best scene by far, in which a British soldier and a German soldier find Joey entangled in some barbed wire in no-man's land and work together to free him.
It's a tense, quiet exchange that ultimately reveals some much-needed humanity, and it could have ended on just the right note — but then "War Horse" goes and ruins it by adding one line too many, just to remind us of how "remarkable" Joey is.
"War Horse," a Walt Disney Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of war violence. Running time: 146 minutes. Two stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.