What I enjoyed most about War Horse is exactly what I would have expected to be my least favorite part: the horse. Spielberg does a magnificent job of creating and honing the film’s tone to emphasize the horse properly without allowing that narrative to become tiresome. What I mean is, I think it is very easy in an animal-focused film to focus on said animal so much that it becomes difficult for the audience to relate. Instead, Spielberg uses the horse to shine a light on the lives of the people he comes in contact with and in doing so, allows for more opportunities for the audience to get invested (this works to varying degrees but more on that in a moment). As Joey moves from place to place, we are introduced to a litany of characters, most of whom are caught in some sad state of affairs, and all of whom are impacted in one way or another by the horse. It is a very intriguing and unique concept and one that Spielberg works well within.
As War Horse progresses, it gets stronger and hits its stride when Joey comes into the possession of a sickly French girl (Celine Buckens) and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup). Buckens is a real delight and her character plays well to the whimsy of the film’s lighter moments, providing one last breath of fresh air before War Horse truly delves into the darkness that is war. But while Joey finds himself in more and more dire situations, the film itself comes together nicely and it seemed to me that at this point, Spielberg found a comfortable groove that is missing in the early goings. In the third act we are treated to a series of scenes that reek of Spielberg in the very best sense of the word and display the true heart of the film. One sequence in particular, in which a British soldier and a German soldier meet on the field between their foxholes to come to Joey’s aid, is one that, in my mind, belongs on the Spielberg highlight reel. Indeed, there is an awful lot to like about War Horse in the final two acts.
What I did not enjoy about this film was that blasted first act. Early on, it is unclear whether War Horse intends to be a family-friendly, holiday movie or a hard-hitting war drama. In one scene a goose is chasing an unwanted guest through the Narracott’s yard and in the next we’re hit hard with the sobering reality of life below the poverty line. Later, Spielberg blunts the brutality of war in order to secure a PG-13 rating (which I understand) and then follows that up with the non-explicit but no less depressing execution of two young soldiers. In addition, I didn’t care for the shot selection in the first act, a shocking criticism considering I don’t believe I have ever questioned Spielberg’s work with the camera before. His persistent close-up of the plow as Joey pulls, for example, comes across as cheap and distracting and left me scratching my head. But perhaps the film’s biggest issue in the early stages is the performance of Irvine. I wouldn’t go so far as to say his portrayal is unwatchable but that terminology wouldn’t be too far off. Irvine had very little cinematic experience coming into War Horse and like the film, he gets better as he goes. But if I’m being completely honest, his work in the first act made me cringe more than once. I thought he was terrible.
All told, what you have with War Horse is a good film that is being treated as a great film because of its final act. If the audience in my theater is any indication, this is a film that has the power to invoke real emotion, enough to make you forget the lackluster first third. I won’t argue that Spielberg didn’t know how to blend the family-oriented portions of this film with the harsher realities of war contained in other parts but I would say that he tried too hard to reach out to everyone rather than focusing in on a target audience. A PG family film would have brought a ton of cash and an R-rated serious look at war through the eyes of the horse would have undoubtedly garnered serious award consideration. And hey, it’s entirely possible that he’ll be able to get both by splitting the difference; that combination just didn’t quite work for me. It did, however, make me kind-of-sort-of care about a horse and that is somewhat of an achievement in and of itself.