At his best, Steven Spielberg is a justly praised master — a Hollywood legend with the awe-struck eyes of a child and the worried soul of a parent, a superb action filmmaker with a gift for iconic set pieces and an unblinking chronicler of wartime violence keenly aware of the sacrifices that come with even the greatest victories. At his worst, Mr. Spielberg is a self-indulgent cinematic pop star — a sentimental emotional manipulator, a purveyor of blockbuster excess, and a mawkish historical dabbler who shields his audience from the hard truths he sometimes hints at.
Viewers will find both Spielbergs in "War Horse," his adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's 1982 young adult novel about a boy and a horse in the midst of World War I. Although there are extended flashes of his anguished brilliance trotting through the second half, it's the worst Spielberg — the sentimentalist whose overprotective streak undermines his own most powerful ideas — that takes the reins in this movie.
In one sense, "War Horse" is an adolescent's war movie — a sort of Happy Meal-sized version of "Saving Private Ryan" set in World War I. There's a young man who throws himself into battle, a tour of the war-torn European countryside, and brutally powerful scenes of trench warfare. After the boy, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), follows the horse, Joey, off to war, we watch the two travel separate paths through the heart of the conflict.
But in another sense, it's a story of eternal romance, about a boy and a horse destined to be together but drawn apart by the horrors of the 20th century's first great conflict. Indeed, Albert's deep attachment to the horse is cast as a sort of gushing preteen infatuation. The movie frequently resembles one of the many contemporary romances in which the wild energies of some young woman help a sad-sack lad find himself.
Thank goodness, then, that Albert gets less screen time than his equine lover; the bulk of the movie's middle section follows the horse rather than the boy as custody changes hands from British officer to French farmers to lowly German soldiers and back again. There are virtues to this sort of aimless narrative grazing: If you don't like one story, wait a few minutes — another's bound to come trotting by.
In each story, though, the idea is the same: Joey's purity of spirit brings out the simple humanity in each owner. But the mysterious and instantaneous insistence by so many strangers that this horse is somehow special is vexing at best, offensive at worst, especially when, in a climactic scene, a military doctor leaves a tent full of wounded soldiers to care for Joey. The horse is special and the people are not? Indeed, the movie provokes the question: What's so special about this story at all?
At this point in his career, Mr. Spielberg can make any movie he wants. Why this one? The truly harrowing depictions of early trench warfare in the second half suggest one possible motivation, but Mr. Spielberg never provides a fully convincing answer. It's clear that, like Albert, he loves this horse, but also that he can't explain why.
★ ★ ½ (out of four)
TITLE: "War Horse"
CREDITS: Directed by Steven Spielberg; screenplay by Lee Hall, Richard Curtis
RATING: PG-13 for horrific war violence
RUNNING TIME: 146 minutes