Sweeping in its style and old-fashioned in its narrative structure, War Horse will likely take its place alongside beloved family films.
But that doesn't mean sitting through it is pure pleasure. It's a long slog at almost 2½ hours, and occasionally it resorts to obvious sentimentality. At times it's hard to escape the sense that we're watching Saving Private Ryan-meets-The Black Stallion. The film's dialogue is sometimes clichéd, but that's mostly beside the point. Indeed, for the first 15 minutes, few words are even uttered. War Horse has an exhilarating, impressionistic beauty, and emotion trumps rationality at every turn.
In the hands of a master director like Steven Spielberg, the story is impeccably crafted and heartfelt, if consistently predictable. The collaboration of Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski results in gorgeous visuals.
Based more on the children's book by Michael Morpurgo than the hit stage play (in which clever puppetry is a key allure), the story unfolds at the onset of World War I in exceptionally verdant British countryside.
The handsome horse, repeatedly referred to as "remarkable," justifiably gets top billing, above Albert (Jeremy Irvine), the lad who is devoted to him. Albert's father, Ted (Peter Mullan), is a drunken ne'er-do-well who buys the Thoroughbred horse at auction, much to the ire of his long-suffering wife, Rose (Emily Watson). Their farm is already perched on rocky land, and what they need is a strong plow horse, not an elite stallion.
Albert falls instantly in love with the horse, whom he names Joey, and to placate his mother, he pledges to tame the spirited beast. He succeeds, only to have his father sell Joey to British cavalry officer Capt. Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston). The officer promises Albert he'll look after his beloved horse, and off Joey goes into battle. Shortly thereafter, Albert enlists. We know Joey and Albert will meet again somewhere. Anyone who suspects otherwise has never seen a Spielberg film.
Much of the film is devoted to gritty battlefield scenes that, after some time, grow numbing. But one of the more stirring sequences has Joey, along with the British cavalry, racing bravely forward only to meet up with strafing German bullets.
The holidays present a rare double dose of Spielberg's special brand of storytelling. While both War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin are rousing, family-friendly adventure sagas, War Horse is the more powerful and resonant tale.