Just days after the release of his lighthearted animated feature The Adventures of Tintin, acclaimed director Steven Spielberg releases the more dramatic adventure War Horse on Christmas day. While Tintin (based on a long-running comic series by Belgian artist Hergé) is like a cross between Indiana Jones and Pirates of the Caribbean, representing Spielberg’s childlike fantastical side, War Horse (based on a children’s book by Michael Morpurgo) reflects the director’s more dramatic tendencies without losing the fun that comes with the suspension of disbelief.
Set during the first World War, War Horse is the story or Joey, an unruly horse that appears to be untamable until he forms a bond and friendship with a young man named Albert (Jeremy Irvine). With Albert’s family on the verge of losing their farm, Albert miraculously trains Joey to plow the fields for turnip planting. But once British soldiers come to town looking for horses for the cavalry, Albert’s destitute family has no choice but to sell Joey to the army for whatever they can get.
From there Joey encounters another stubborn horse who becomes his companion in his upcoming adventures across European countrysides, forests and battlefields. Though he comes to be known by different names to different people, Joey unwittingly becomes a pivotal part of the lives of almost every person he encounters. From German siblings deserting their fellow soldiers to a French farmer and his spunky granddaughter to soldiers from opposing sides of the battle meeting in no man’s land to help untangle the horse from barbed wire, Joey tends to have a way of inspiring magnificent (and sometimes fleeting) moments of joy.
While Spielberg has long enjoyed showing us otherwise ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, the use of an animal protagonist is something new for the director. While Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan told the story of how one soldier’s fate affected many other lives, War Horse is able to tell multiple stories that intersect based on Joey’s whims and circumstances. Though the astonishing coincidences and fortunate serendipity that seem to follow Joey through his many adventures border on Michael Bay-like absurdity, Spielberg gives the story and its characters (including the horse) enough dimension to make you care about their fate, and never portrays anything that is completely out of the realm of possibility.
With some occasional Gone with the Wind-like visual splendor and the fanfare of John Williams’ score, War Horse is definitely a feel-good holiday flick. But as he has done before, Spielberg bucks that formula just enough to make War Horse more than just a sappy tale of triumph over tragedy.
War Horse. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Starring Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Peter Mullan and David Thewlis. Rated PG-13. www.warhorsemovie.com.
Review by Jonathan Williams