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Ten Word or Less Review: Not exactly Schindler’s List.  But better than Amistad.

Trying to recapture the form that made him one of the worlds most renowned and successful directors, Steven Spielberg’s award baiting feature of the 2011 holiday season is War Horse, an old fashioned, lovingly photographed epic about a very special equine and his adventures during the first World War.  War Horse has Spielberg’s trademark sentimentality, lush visuals and a story that pulls at the heart strings, many times with a very firm tug.  Whether or not you fall for the story of a horse named Joey and his perilous war time adventure will largely depend on how cynical and jaded you’re feeling.  If the idea of Steven plunging into your chest fist first and massaging the cockels of your heart as he’s well versed at doing sounds appealing, then War Horse should work like gangbusters for you.  If you’ve developed a prickled callous to the Spielbergian touch, then it may push a lot of the wrong buttons.

Joey is a strong willed horse with a racers build, unwisely overpaid for by a ragingly proud, and little drunk, English farmer who needs a strong, sturdy animal for field plowing.  Joey is immediately taken to by the farmer’s son Albert, a dewy eyed lad who carefully conditions him and turns him into a farm horse despite the overwhelming doubts of the entire town.  As the family struggles continue to mount, war breaks out and Joey is sold to the English army to cover the family rent.  Heart felt goodbyes are had, promises for reunion are made, tears are jerked.  From there Joey goes on a journey in which he crosses the path of numerous people, impressing them with his physical ability as well as his strong personality.  Joey becomes a prized possession for all he encounters, but his encounters with everyone are brief as War Horse establishes an episodic style of storytelling.  The war at hand keeps Joey moving from one person to the next, hopeful to return to young Albert from which he was forcibly taken away.

War Horse will not likely be remembered as a definitive Spielberg classic, but nor is it the overtly grating Velveeta fest some harsher film critics have boldly stated.  War Horse is an enjoyable button pusher of respectable caliber and top tier execution.  The primary drawback to the venture is the uneven flow of the story.  Joey runs through scenarios with numerous characters, some of which are more effective than others.  His run in with two alarmingly young German soldiers feels like an unique angle to pursue, but it’s over before it’s started.  Opposite of this is a prolonged stay at a French farm with a precocious girl and her grandfather that forms little more than a cloying dramatic vacuum.  This good, not so good narrative keeps War Horse from firmly commanding the attention of the audience for the duration.  Also true to the Spielberg form, there’s a hearty amount of dramatic circumstance at play and some heavy melodrama lathered on in more than one place.

But all these hiccups can’t derail War Horse as a whole.  The movie is so expertly mounted and given an amazing sheen by Spielberg and his crew that it’s hard not to fall under its spell at least a little.  Despite the overbearing presentation in spots there’s also a great deal of artistic innovation and even restraint in places.  There is hard hitting violence on occasion but Spielberg isn’t out to recreate every nauseating detail of trench warfare.  Some may call foul for not launching head first into a full blown depiction of WWI, ala Saving Private Ryan, but Spielberg clearly doesn’t intend to tell that kind of nervy, gut punching story.  And for a movie which basically stars a horse, played by one main horse and 13 substitutes, Spielberg gets a solid performance out of his equine leading man (men).  The human cast behind the four legged lead are all fine as well.  Emily Watson, Peter Mullan, David Thewlis, Tom Middleton and Benedict Cumberbatch all carry their own limited roles out well against the charming carrot eater.  Newcomer Jeremy Irvine, as Albert, plays his role much too earnestly, but I expect that’s exactly what Spielberg wanted.  He’s the kind of young, heart on the sleave, emotionally obvious teenager that would’ve made John Ford a happy story teller.

Steven Spielberg is still a very good filmmaker but he’s still working out some rust.  Tin Tin was a rollicking, outlandindish adventure movie but absent of soul.  War Horse has soul, too much soul in fact, but suffers from uneven dramatics under its saddle.  His sensibilities as a top notch story teller are clearly still there, he simply hasn’t unified them behind one engrossing narrative.  With his long gestating movie on Abraham Lincoln coming later this year, maybe he will have found his creative center and deliver on the promise War Horse and Tin Tin imply is still simmering beneath the surface.

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