It is as sweeping and as comfortably old-fashioned as a John Ford movie, but War Horse has the soul of a hollow chocolate Santa. It’s not as if Steven Spielberg has forgotten how to make a crowd-pleasing blockbuster. All the pieces of this World War I movie are in place, from Janusz Kaminski’s velvety cinematography to a sweep over time and history that self-consciously - and in this case falsely - announces some ambition. But Spielberg has never been so lethally cliched before, settling into a tired, sentimental genre without any attempt at either modernization or homage. I’m sure all those people who left the film weeping are sincere, but we know how easy it is for a story about a boy and his dog – or a horse, or whatever – to play on obvious emotions without really registering anything.
Based on Michael Morpurgo’s children’s book more than the hit play, the story’s human hero is a young man named Albert (Jeremy Irvine) whose parents are those stock figures, the drunken father (Peter Mullan) and the long-suffering mother (Emily Watson), in this case tenants on a rock-strewn English farm. Albert tames the spirited horse his father insists on buying, and names him Joey – that’s how human this horse is -- only to have his desperate father sell Joey to an upper-class officer (Tom Hiddleston, who makes an impression in a tiny role here, just as he did as F. Scott Fitzgerald in Midnight in Paris.) Joey rides off into battle, and soon Albert is in the trenches too.
While we’re waiting to see if Albert and Joey cross paths in the middle of no-man’s land – really, it’s like a Monty Python plot – Spielberg plunges into the war scenes and delivers the film’s strongest episodes. As we know from Saving Private Ryan, he can immerse us into the muddy, bloody nightmare of war yet somehow retain the film’s mainstream Hollywood polish – a very effective trick. There is a huge, dynamic battle scene in which the British cavalry, including brave Joey, race headlong into a barrage of German guns – a striking set piece that captures the moment when 19th-century warfare collided with the 20th century. It’s at this point, though, that you begin to wonder just who the film is for: the kiddie plot is too watered down for grownups to care about, and the war scenes too realistically brutal for the very young.
For a while, Joey is a prisoner of war, but eventually makes his way to a farmhouse, where a kindly old man (Niels Arestrup) cares for his young granddaughter, who adores Joey and (uh-oh) is what used to be called “sickly.” I wish I could believe that Spielberg is doing something more than cranking out a perfunctory variation on a million other stories, but this might as well be Heidi Meets Black Beauty During World War I.
There are twists and turns and false endings, but nothing that feels in the least bit emotionally true. Despite its energetic action, and some spectacular scenes of horses in motion, the film is totally by the numbers. Of course Spielberg’s numbers – both his paint-by-numbers palette and his box-office count – are better and higher than most filmmakers’. That makes War Horse more disappointing, not less.