Magnificent Joey

Overcooked emotional scenes aside, 'War Horse' is a beautiful, powerful film

Steven Spielberg is such a lazy bastard. I mean, come on; He's only directed two big-budget movies released within a week of each other!

War Horse is one those films. (The CGI-animated The Adventures of Tintin, is also in theaters.) As for Spielberg's 2011 live-action offering, it's a mixed bag, albeit a bag with more good mixed in than bad. The emotional stuff gets to the point where even the most loving people could get generally uncomfortable; Spielberg just doesn't know where to stop sometimes. It's one of his cute flaws.

The film is based on a children's book and stage adaptation of the same name. As for the horse implied in the title, it's named Joey. There has never been a more impressive group of horses in a movie. Numerous, nearly identical horses play the War Horse, and they are some of the most-amazing creatures ever put to film. The Black Stallion, Seabiscuit, the head in the Godfather-movie bed ... they all take a back seat to the horses in this movie.

Jeremy Irvine makes a nice feature debut as Albert, a young English man living on his family's lackluster farm just prior to World War I. His father, Ted (a mightily melodramatic Peter Mullan), outbids his damned landlord (David Thewlis) for Joey, in the process spending too much money and pissing off his wife, Rose (Emily Watson).

Albert is tasked with teaching Joey how to plow a field—a field full of rocks no less—in order for the family to grow crops and pay the rent. Joey performs well, but is eventually sold to the army when Britain enters the war. Tom Hiddleston, wonderful as Loki in this year's Thor, makes a splendid appearance as the soldier who purchases Joey.

While War Horse might not be the year's best film, it does have a sequence that I would submit as one of the year's best. When a spooked Joey runs through war trenches and winds up snarled in barbed wire, it results in one of the greatest moments Spielberg has ever put to film. It's an incredible combination of live action and special effects—one of those screen moments that makes you wonder just how in the hell the filmmakers could pull something like it off.

While this sequence represents the film's highlight, there are more powerful moments, such as when Albert becomes a victim of a gas attack in the trenches, and a rain-drenched plow run with Joey. A scene in which Albert rides Joey and races a car is exhilarating.

There are times—good times, I might add—when War Horse feels like Spielberg is taking a crack at his own Gone With the Wind or All Quiet on the Western Front. I got the Wind vibe during some of the horizon shots provided by camera genius Janusz Kaminski, while the war sequences remind me of Western Front. As Spielberg proved before with Saving Private Ryan, he is capable of amazing battle sequences.

As I've mentioned, some of the emotional payoff stuff is a little overcooked. A scene close to the finale is unabashedly goofy rather than moving.

Still, it's easy to forgive Spielberg's slip-ups when the majority of his movie is both a pleasure to look at and well-acted by humans and animals alike. While there are some moments in War Horse that I will allow myself to forget, I will never forget the amazing Joey, and the magnificent animals that played him.

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