When we approach even a film without serious ambitions, such as Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, based on the children’s book by Michael Morpurgo, if its protagonist is an animal that changes hands a number of times, we have no choice, unless we are an ignoramus or a philistine, but to compare its achievement to that of a bona fide masterpiece: Au hasard Balthazar (1966), about a downtrodden donkey’s pilgrim’s progress. Expressing an attitude towards an animal simply isn’t good enough anymore; Robert Bresson’s stunning film upped the ante by imaginatively penetrating an animal’s interiority and experience of the world, in addition to depicting a saga of hardship. To say the least, Spielberg is no Bresson, his war horse Joey, no Balthazar.
That said, Spielberg’s simple message, that God exists no matter how much men kill and maim one another in war, and that Joey’s charmed fate is proof of God’s existence, honestly unifies his narrative (Lee Hall and Richard Curtis penned the script), which revolves around an English horse throughout the Great War. At different times the Germans and even the British are on the verge of shooting Joey dead. At the last, Joey is brought home by soldier Albert Narracott, the boy who raised and trained him from the time Joey was a foal, to the Devon farm that he was sold to the cavalry in order to save financially. What? You were expecting an unhappy ending?!
Unfortunately, Spielberg’s filmmaking throughout is trite, old-fashioned and unfeelingly sentimental (Spielberg cribs his opening from Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music, 1965!), and the narrative itself drags, especially in the middle. This is a dreary, exceptionally poor film in which the “star,” the horse, is effortlessly upstaged by an hilariously honking, scurrying goose.
The thing is unevenly acted, although Emily Watson is brilliant as Rose, Albert’s mother, and Jeremy Irvine is terrifically likeable as Albert.
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