What’s the best way to make a crowd cry? Put an adorable animal in peril. Considering that animals have etched their way into our homes and hearts, it’s easy for us to be manipulated by such a trap. Take a look at Marley and Me, a film that captured filmgoer’s attention not because it was particularly good, but because it used a four-legged friend as an emotional truncheon (someone used a thesaurus!). The same rules apply for Steven Spielberg’s War Horse. Based on the stage play of the same name, War Horse puts us on the back of an animal that is emotionally and physically tortured. Never has a horse been through so much. But of course, as Spielberg and the source material would have it, the horse is a triumphant beast that is granted moments of humanistic bliss. Our horse, simply named Joey, is introduced to us through the eyes of Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine). Albert gleefully watches the maturation of Joey from afar. There’s something about this untamed beast that has captured his attention. The distance between the two is shortened when Albert’s father, Ted (Peter Mullan), a war veteran turned alcoholic farmer, buys Joey outright at a town sale. At long last, these two friends can live and learn together without interruption.
Actually, I’m lying. Joey’s stay with Albert is brisk. As misfortune would have it, Ted over bid on Joey to beat his landlord in a public pissing match. Now, short on cash and with rent due, Ted has to sell the mercurial animal to keep his home. Much to Albert’s chagrin, Joey is sold to Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), a soldier on his way to war. Joey is now on the frontlines of World War I. It’s a frightening place for an animal to be. Not only because of the grunt work to endure, but also because of the evolving technology found within the war. Traditional rapiers are replaced with machine guns that pierce the skin at an impressive clip, while horses are driven into the ground as they pull technology to the forefront (artillery anyone?). Joey’s journey with Nicholls ends when technology (at the sly hands of the Germans) bludgeons tradition into a bloody pulp. Miraculously, Joey survives but he is captured by the Germans. The stakes are unknown to Joey, so what side he operates on is irrelevant. He’s only impartial to a horse he meets, Albert and survival. It’s through Joey’s determination, and the help of a few strangers, that he even has the chance to breathe, let alone see the man who has been pining for him.
In the third act, Joey and Albert get their expected reunion, while Spielberg pours on the schmaltz like no other. Like I’ve alluded to before, watching Joey run through the trenches of World War I is breathtaking and damaging. Spielberg terrifically establishes the nature of trench warfare and how such an arduous event can break the skin, but not the spirit. Joey clearly embodies this. Seeing his legs buckle while carrying artillery up a steep, muddy hill creates for an irrevocable image. Despite the anguish that seeps out of every muscle, Joey pushes forward in the hope of escaping this nightmare. We’re enthusiastically right there with him. Yet, when everything is said and done, despite the presence of Joey, War Horse feels underwhelming once the credits roll. I certainly can’t blame the showmanship that Spielberg puts on display. Through the vibrant lens of Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg crafts some of the most captivating images put to film this year. Whether it’s a triumphant shot of Joey running through a trench or a haunting execution blocked by the blade of a windmill, War Horse has a level of grandeur that is easy to marvel over.
But, despite its technical prowess, War Horse is missing one thing: Genuine interest in its human characters. It’s easy to see what’s special about Joey, but the significance of his human counterparts ceases to exist. There are certainly moments where the human interaction is heartfelt, most notably Joey’s short stay with a French girl and her grandfather, but often they lack the insight or duration to truly amplify the film’s tenderness. Not helping matters is the scope of the film. Once World War I hits, the film expands and seemingly sinks all the characters into Spielberg’s flair. If the characters were fleshed out, then maybe they would’ve risen above the vision. But they don’t, and we’re left with a film that isn’t nearly as fulfilling as it should be. Of course there are emotional moments that will surely force a lump in one’s throat, but those will quickly be replaced by the shrugs of a dismissive shoulder.