For the record, I'm a sappy horse lover, & I desperately wanted to like, nay love, this film but I have to give it two stars.
Based on a children's novel by Michael Morpurgo, I never heard of "War Horse" until the Broadway production. Magnificent life-size horse puppets were so eerily realistic and moving that THEY actually moved me to tears. This was before I had an inkling that Spielberg had optioned the story and was making a film of it.
Spielberg has pulled out every stop here -- the movie is shot on real film and looks it, lush and expensive. The battle scenes are detailed and exciting. There is a skillful cast of respected British actors. But it's entirely without real heart and soul.
Without the exciting puppetry (that undoubtedly drew Spielberg to the material as it did me), the only way to save this would have been some kind of thoughtful retelling of the material. And once you get past the swelling music, the golden sunsets and manipulated emotional level, frankly this feels empty. "The Black Stallion" -- from 1979 -- is a much more fantastical story, without historical precedent or realism, and yet I never watch it without sobbing like a baby, because it touches something deep and human and universal. "War Horse" simply does not. It feels like a calculated bid for an Oscar nomination.
Being released along with "TinTin" at the same Christmas slot, my impression was that the first big mistake Spielberg made was to go realistic with the story. The play worked because it is NOT realistic. Frankly, I think he should have used animation for the horse story -- made it more symbolic and expressionistic -- and filmed TinTin straight up as an "Indiana Jones"- type adventure.
I was also struck, from almost the start of the film, that Spielberg honestly knows (and cares) NOTHING about horses and that lack of genuine interest plagues the film. The first part of the film, set in an English village, has the Narracott family -- apparently the dumbest and most incompetent tenant farmers in British history -- who irrationally decide to buy a thoroughbred for plowing. Strangely, they seem not to have owned ANY horse prior to this. How did they plow the farm BEFORE Joey? Mr. Narracott spends 30 quid on Joey (I believe this would be about $150 US, as it was valued in 1914) -- that amount of money would have easily bought Joey AND some old plowhorse.
And why is Mr. Narracott about 60-65 years old, with a 14 year old son? People married young back then -- Albert is more the age of his grandchild. How on earth did the father think he'd run a good-sized farm, when he's handicapped? and has no plow horse? (Note: nobody apparently had ever heard of mules back then -- much cheaper than a thoroughbred!) Since he spends his life savings on Joey, Mr. Narracott now has NO RENT MONEY....why did he do this? He doesn't even like or WANT the horse! He has no use for such a horse! He's put his entire family in danger of going hungry and/or being evicted for a horse he dislikes. Then he gambles what's left of his future that this slightly built yearling can plow up a huge, rocky field.
Of course the horse does so, with considerable anguish and suffering -- in one day, because nobody remotely considered doing it a bit at a time. The Narracotts are so mentally challenged as a FAMILY, none of them consider FIRST going through the field and REMOVING the giant ROCKS, but prefer to make it as hard as possible for the horse. When they amazingly DO NOT KILL the horse with this abusive behavior, it then rains, washing away the entire crop (of turnips, no less). While all this happens, the village folk -- who have no work or farms of their own to run -- stand around IN THE RAIN watching! Literally, they have no more sense than to stand in the rain in their good clothes. Naturally, NOT ONE OF THEM -- all presumably village tenant farmers -- has a spare horse or mule, or even the decency to pitch in and help a CRIPPLED MAN and his 14 year old boy. Nice town. Glad I don't live there. Note: by 1914, if they had CARS, they had TRACTORS.
After this segment, there was nothing about the war scenes or Joey's unlikely survival against all odds, that moved me or made me feel anything for the characters. Jeremy Irvine, as Albert (the boy) is especially weak, and he doesn't look 14 (he also looks identical at 18, whereas we all know that boys change VERY rapidly in physique in those 4 years).
At the end, when Joey and Albert return from war....well, they apparently take a wrong turn and end up in WYOMING. Because suddenly there are western-like expanses of land, and big golden sunsets and vistas that go on forever. Frankly, it's not Devonshire, England.
Among the many subplots -- where Joey is handed along by one unbelievably kind and decent person to another, literally the nicest warring folks in history -- one set in a French farmhouse, with the world's most annoying kid with the world's lamest fake French accent, is a real low point. Later, we hear the little girl has died -- old movie disease, since she looks healthy as, well, a horse -- we just feel relief we don't have to hear her fake French accent again (I was afraid she'd resurface somewhat older, as a romantic partner for Albert).
Sorry, I can't buy one frame of this film. A big disappointment. If you do get a chance to view some of the puppetry from the theatrical play, don't miss it -- THAT is magnificent. But the film, just third rate.