23 December 2011

War Horse

Jeremy Irvine is shown in a scene from "War Horse."

Coming from Steven Spielberg during the year-end Oscar-bait season, "War Horse" is exactly the kind of movie you probably think it is.

It is gorgeously shot by the great cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, features stirring music by the always reliable composer John Williams, boasts several harrowing World War I battle scenes, includes bits of slapstick humor and has at its center a protagonist that virtually defines the term "rooting interest."

It has all these things, and they all work well.

Yet it feels a little routine, like Spielberg and his ace team of collaborators could have made this movie in their sleep. I suppose that's not a bad problem to have, and more than anything else, it's a testament to the superb work Spielberg has done for nearly four decades. So I'm trying not to hold that against "War Horse."

We get both Spielbergs for the price of one here—the sentimental filmmaker of his earlier days (think "E.T.") and the more intense auteur of his later years (think "Saving Private Ryan" only with a lot less blood).

The hero of the story is the horse of the title. He goes by many names throughout the movie, but I'll stick with Joey, the one given to him by Albert (Jeremy Irvine), the English teenager who raises him and trains him to work on the family farm.

In 1914, war comes to Europe, and Albert's father (Peter Mullan), seizing the opportunity to make some much-needed cash, sells Joey to the cavalry.

The horse's odyssey takes him from being the steed of a kindly British officer (Tom Hiddleston) to the companion of a sickly girl (Celine Buckens) and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup) in the French countryside to a beast of burden for the Germans to being lost, alone, in no man's land, and you probably can guess where he ends up by movie's end.

With a cast lacking in recognizable names, the horse truly is the star. And what a magnificent creature he is, touching the lives of people no matter which side of the war they are on. He even provides a platform for a British soldier to bond with a German counterpart.

Best of all, "War Horse" is a throwback, an old-fashioned movie that doesn't rely heavily on computer effects, shot and presented in two glorious dimensions only.

Presenting optimism even in the face of war, Spielberg isn't afraid to tug on the heartstrings. But he does so with restraint and it's earned after everything Joey endures.

You might not be able to predict exactly where Joey's road will take him, but there are no real surprises to find. "War Horse" is exactly what you think it will be, no more, no less. In this case, I'll take it.

Greg’s Grade: A-

(Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of war violence. 146 minutes.)

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