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War Horse—movie review

Reviews
by Leonard Maltin
December 23, 2011 6:17 AM
23 Comments
  • |
David Appleby - DreamWorks "War Horse," one of many Spielberg movies shot on film.

I don’t like pigeonholing films, and I’ve never been fond of the term “chick flick,” but I’d be less than candid if I didn’t tell you that several women I know and respect (including my wife) were moved to tears by War Horse, while I was lukewarm about it. Normally, I’m a sucker for this kind of picture, which has a great deal of sentiment built into it—but I found its execution too blatant and—if I’m not making a pun—on-the-nose. But then, subtlety has never been Steven Spielberg’s strong suit.

That tone is established in the movie’s earliest scenes, in which an irresponsible and impoverished farmer (played with an uncharacteristic heavy hand by Peter Mullan) purchases a horse he can ill afford at auction. His son (Jeremy Irvine) adopts the animal as his own, names it Joey, and vows to train it, against all odds, to plow their rock-laden land. He and the horse develop a real rapport. That makes it all the harder for him when Joey is conscripted by the British Army to serve his country when war breaks out in 1914. Joey endures more hardship than any horse ought to, but everyone who encounters him over the next four years is immediately impressed with his beauty and indomitable spirit.

David Appleby - DreamWorks
War Horse started out as a children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo in 1982, and that seems to be the way Spielberg and his screenwriters (Lee Hall and Richard Curtis) have approached it. Every turn of the story and each new character we meet is introduced in obvious fashion, as if we might not understand anything that wasn’t spelled out and underscored (sometimes literally, in John Williams’ music).

Because the material itself is absorbing, and inherently emotional, and because it’s a handsome production, War Horse is a very watchable. Good actors like Emily Watson, Niels Arestrup, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch, fill the cast. But for the most part, they are called upon to approach their parts in the most transparent way possible. Nothing is left for us to discover on our own.

Near the end of the film, Spielberg unveils a Technicolor sky so reminiscent of the “I’ll never go hungry again” moment in Gone With The Wind, I let out a cackle. I don’t think that was the reaction he intended, but I couldn’t help it—just as he apparently couldn’t resist taking a moment already suffused with emotion and trying to drive it home with a splash. I wish he had resisted the urge.

As War Horse has all the makings of a crowd-pleaser, younger viewers may be particularly responsive to it. But as much as I admire Steven Spielberg’s enormous skills, I wish someone else had tackled this material.

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23 Comments

  • Peter | May 30, 2014 5:17 AMReply

    I agree with Leonard. This movie is not the full monty.
    It is well meaning for sure with worthwhile themes but executed pedantically.

  • John L. Matthew | April 12, 2012 8:26 PMReply

    So even Leonard can have an off-day! Unfortunately his pathetic review, coupled with a bunch of the sort of pre-teen, ignorant diatribes usually found on the Movie database, spewed up by youngsters who know nothing about film & care even less, do not invalidate Spielberg's "War Horse". Those who do know of it's origins & appreciate the combined brilliance of the people who made it, validate it as a fine film. Without the usual disgusting toilet jokes, foul language & sleazy sexual scenes, & extreme violence & ugliness as is found in two of todays "Top" tv mini-series, Sony's "Justified" & STARZ '"SPARTACUS", with it's gratuitous
    CFI blood & gore splashing around in every scene with a decapitation or limb dismemberment, to say nothing od street sex language spoken by the actors, no wonder "War Horse" didn't appeal to todaty's young audiences?

  • Loose Tooth | January 30, 2012 7:56 PMReply

    Very disappointed indeed. Steretypical characters, in-your-face style, nothing subtle or clever, and the horse is too groomed all the time, not realistic at all.
    Joey's owner is just painful, the acting is thin, the story is thinner, this is movie-making poured down your throat with a bucketful of sugar.
    Much preferred the Iron Lady, a beautiful study in irony, subtlety and gritty, realistic movie making. Spielberg has done far better work than War Horse, starting with Duel.

  • rocky | January 30, 2012 3:53 PMReply

    The storyline is weak, the horse bland, the characters blander, the feel fake. Phar Lap is a much better horse picture, and Speilberg is made many better films than this one, Just dull and boring with a spoonful of gloop!!

  • Tamua | January 30, 2012 3:51 PMReply

    Loathed it! Sentimenatal, unreal-feeling, no real story structure, no interesting characters.
    A messy, long-winded, mucky, over-arching bore.
    Empire of the Sun a million times better.
    This was tacky, childish, rubbishy stuff.

  • jay | January 27, 2012 11:26 AMReply

    One shouldn't criticize a movie for its approach - but only for its realization.
    I'm not a fan of Spielberg in general, but compared to such mediocre movies like
    THE HELP (result: The Color Purple for adolescents) and THE TREE OF LIFE
    (result:kinda dismay-cinema of esoterism) being Oscar-nominated it's even a highlight
    of filmmaking.

  • Gilly Popham | January 23, 2012 5:36 PMReply

    this is a really brilliant movie .. an epic infact ..it is primarily a family film so it is not intellectually challenging for adults but it raises a lot of issues about war, fairness,loyalty and the bond between a boy and his horse. My 10 year old grandson said it is by far the best film he's ever seen & he's a huge Harry Potter fan so that says it all really

  • Jean Darling | January 13, 2012 4:32 AMReply

    Do you remember FLORIAN the tale of a Lipazanner horse during WW One?

    I have remembered it for years as I thought it so lovely --- especially the end.

    Bye for now
    Jean Darling

  • Deeper Into Movies | January 6, 2012 1:42 PMReply

    Whether affixed with bumper stickers that say War Is Hell or Be Kind To Animals, War Horse plods through a well-trod turf. Throughout Joey’s journey, we watch his human handlers making and breaking promises to each other and him, resulting in separation, loss, and death. The nadir of the fable is a mawkish vignette that drops Joey into the arms of a French farmer’s sugar-sweet granddaughter who seems airlifted in from a 1930s Deanna Durbin movie...
    By the time the climax is dragged in, the battle for the audience’s minds, if not their hearts, is over. In the thick of a battle between the British and Germans at the Somme, Joey becomes the catalyst for the most improbable wartime plot turn since McHale joined the Navy...
    (Entire review now playing athttp://deepintomovies.blogspot.com/2012/01/film-review-war-horse-adventures-of.html)

  • SCOTT | January 2, 2012 9:23 PMReply

    Mr. Maltin is right. This movie is just pure maudlin pap. Spielberg for one should have German soldiers SPEAK German, and use sub titles except when they were speaking to the British. Ditto for the French characters. Their horrible accents sounded like Pepe Le Pue. Its just bunk and no one deals more crappy bunk to his audience than Spielberg. Truth told I didn't know that Spielberg who is a cream cheese vendor of highest order, directed the film otherwise I would have avoided it.

  • Victoria | January 1, 2012 6:14 AMReply

    The movie was very disturbing. As horrific as some scenes were of the soldiers (like bodies blown into the air from bombs in the trenches), the horse situations were much worse and usually very torturous. I STRONGLY urge parents to see this movie first before even considering having their children, of all ages, see it. It was emotionally and visually exhausting, often with piles of dead horses and ongoing cruelty to those few that seemed to survive, only to be subjected to more cruelty. After a few minutes of semi-positive moments following a nasty start and a disgusting father, the film goes downhill until the last few minutes, and then amidst that brief respite, you find out the fate of the French granddaughter, so even that is spoiled (plus the horse again being brought within range of the young man's father, so who knows what he'll do to the horse next, despite the ending "Gone With the Wind sunset"). I did not enjoy seeing a horse supposed mummy encased in barbed wire, either, and that wasn't even the worst of it. OMG was my oft repeated comment while considering if I should look away again. I almost walked out several times, and frankly wish I had despite Williams great score. The horse actors playing Joey were great, but just see Secretariat again if you want to see the main horse actor in a much kinder film. Your child could end up with lasting nightmares from this film.

  • walker | December 31, 2011 10:39 PMReply

    I concur completely! Why is this film being lauded? Does treacle constitute quality? Put it up against "How Green Was My Valley" and then lets see how good War Horse is.

  • Linda Fraley | December 28, 2011 10:57 AMReply

    Just saw the movie. Looks like homage was paid to David Lean in the cavalry coming out of the tall grass to be mowed down. Spielberg also seems to have borrowed Ron and Draco from the Harry Potter series for Albert's peers from Devon. After the back flip which made my vet children wince, I can't see how Joey was to be put down by the Brits for a small flesh wound. I could go on about horse training, ruined turnips looking a lot like ones ready for market and overall disjointed effects. My favorite character was Peter from Dusseldorf.

  • Deb | December 27, 2011 12:46 PMReply

    I enjoyed the movie but was annoyed by several scenes. Example: we are supposed to believe that British and German soldiers would risk their lives to save Joey from "No Man's Land" but a tank crew would run the horse over when it is cornered? Also, a lack of imagination on Spielberg's part --- gee, a honking goose that terrorizes people. Never see that before. Too much of the film was predicable. To give credit where credit is due, the war scenes are realistically horrific, and the fate of the German brothers was not glossed-over (totally believeable 'cause that's what armies do). As a horse afficianado, I could relate to how the heroic characters felt about Joey and the other horses, and several scenes made me weepy. But this is not a great film...it could have been.

  • Jean | December 27, 2011 10:37 AMReply

    Just saw the movie & LOVED it! The scenes of WWI combat are incredible!

  • mike taylor | December 26, 2011 6:09 AMReply

    Absolute stinker stay well away - unless under 5 years old

  • Beatrice Eldrup-Smith | December 23, 2011 11:42 PMReply

    Nothing said about the star? The horse Hello....

  • Norm | December 23, 2011 5:05 PMReply

    Secret in Hollywood. When they don't preview a film, more often than not , it is a stinker...
    While Spielberg and George Lucas had been "Mavericks" when they started, not the case anymore..The real talent is now collecting as much Jing, and putting it into the bank accounts. Mr. S. was # 3 behind Tyler Perry and Jerry Bruckheimer in earnings..See, it is about the money, not the art of film making...Does anyone really need another copy of Star Wars...

  • Dick May | December 23, 2011 4:48 PMReply

    Not only the GWTW inspired sunrise lighting, but in another spot the crane shot over the battlefield of war casualties immediately reminded me of the train station scene.
    Imitation...flattery, etc.

  • John L. Matthew | December 23, 2011 4:15 PMReply

    You should read Michael Morpurgo's book & like I did, get the London theatre's DVD of their award winning play, using the amazing South African puppet horses. The play is still breaking records over here. Another big horse movie is Simon Wincer's "The Cup" already out Down Under.
    Based on Eric O'Keefe's superb book about Australian jockey, Damien Oliver, winning the 2002 Melbourne Cup. I'm hoping to get a DVD once it's released to disc. Whether this movie will reach the same heights as Wincer's "Phar Lap' remains to be seen. But it has everything necessary to make it a huge hit! Check out Eric O'Keefe! sincerely, John.

  • Jeffrey | December 23, 2011 1:29 PMReply

    Regrettable. This was definitely one of the films at the end of the year I was looking forward to.

  • Matt | December 26, 2011 12:38 AM

    Maltin is WAY off. Just watched War Horse. It's clear Maltin wanted the Shindlers List version. With the exception of 5-7 minutes I'd cut in the middle, it's a great film. I will also boldly say that John Williams score is tremendous!

  • Michael | December 24, 2011 11:00 PM

    Just because Leonard Maltin gave it a bad review doesn't mean you shouldn't still look forward to it. Maltin is a good reviewer, but for the past 5 or so years he's been off his game.

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