Dir. Steven Spielberg
Is it any wonder that Spielberg's best film, Jaws, is the film he was so traumatized to make he absolutely refused to attend the 25th anniversary in Martha's Vineyard back in 2000? He was a young, callow director then, making his first major feature on a remote location, with a bunch of cranky actors and a giant, mechanical shark that refused to work properly. Given an extremely difficult shoot, he was forced to work far outside his comfort zone and the result was an all-time classic. But given 23 subsequent features, all of which have generated billions in box office revenues, and Spielberg has quite happily settled into what we can only assume is a very comfortable position, utilizing many of the exact same tropes and techniques he's used dozens of times before. Yes, there are a few notable exceptions mixed in -- he flirted with a Kubrickian color palette in the early aughts, for example -- but he seems personally happiest when he gets to do his standard, schmaltzy shtick.
Which is a long-winded way of saying War Horse, a fanciful film based on a play that was based on a YA novel by Michael Morpurgo, finds Spielberg very much in his element, generously employing the services of the firm Earnest and Broad, and trumping up emotionally stirring scenes with shameless proclivity. The movie follows the adventure of a very special horse named Joey, raised in North England just prior to WWI by a sweet-faced young man named Albert (Jeremy Irvine) before being sold to a kindly captain (Tom Hiddleston) just heading off to war. The horse then embarks on a kind of equine Forrest Gump odyssey, making his way from the British frontline, to a couple of young German soldiers, to a French jam farm run by a kindly old man (Niels Arestup) and his granddaughter (Celine Buckens); back to the Germans, then through a horrific stretch of no-man's land and a tangle of barbed wire before making his way back to the British.
Along the way, Spielberg gets to create a veritable greatest hits tribute to himself: There's the fresh-faced kids, the sweeping camera work, the inexcusably obtrusive score by John Williams, and the goodness in all our hearts, writ epic, with plenty of well-timed rain, and CGI-riffic sunsets, and all the visual short-hand cues you'd expect from an equally blatant Chevy commercial. There is also the question of exactly for whom the film is intended: Too sappy and trite for most adults; too violent and dark for most children. Still, the film isn't all trite and nonsense, in fact, there's at least a solid handful of well-drawn scenes, including one near the end that finds a British and German soldier working together to free the horse from his barbed-wire shackles which works precisely because of its underplayed quality. But far too often, Spielberg is content to pop the cork on his unfettered emotional bubbliness, saturating the screen with his drippy blend of crowd-pleasin' cornpone.