“War Horse” is supposed to be one of the best productions on Broadway. It’s acclaimed for its beautiful and moving story as well as some fantastic puppetry. However, most people won’t have the opportunity to see “War Horse” on Broadway, so for the masses, we have “War Horse” the movie.
The film adaptation of “War Horse” has beautiful landscapes and in the hands of historical film extraordinaire director Steven Spielberg, the World War 1 battle scenes are stunning. Spielberg loves to make epic and ambitious movies; and for a movie whose central and only consistent character is a horse named Joey, this is definitely an ambitious project. But in its fight to be epic, Spielberg falls prey to the same thing that made “A.I.” such a flop…pacing. Just like “War Horse,” “A.I” was an ambitious project. It was an interesting idea with some spectacular visuals, but it was also long, tedious and incredibly dull. “War Horse” fares a bit better, but at 2 and a half hours, there was definitely a lot that could have been cut from this movie to help keep things moving along.
“War Horse” starts far too early in the grand timeline, beginning with the horse’s birth and a slightly confusing first meeting with one of our main human stars, Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine). Just by cutting the first twenty minutes and starting the film with the horse auction would have drastically improved the pacing and made the story a lot tighter, while also bringing the ending a true full circle. From the auction, there is then another thirty minutes of Albert and Joey’s budding friendship during the hard life on a rented farm. So it’s about a full hour before “war” for this horse even comes into play in a film titled “War Horse.”
To save the farm, Albert’s father sells Joey to some English WWI soldiers. Albert’s too young to accompany his best friend, but promises they’ll be united someday (cue the awws). Like in theater, “War Horse,” the movie, is set up into little acts. So with the big sale, the film leaves Albert’s story (for now) and begins a new act with the English soldiers. Then it isn’t long though before another new act begins with Joey falling into German hands. This was one of the more interesting vignettes of the film — usually in WWI films such as this, Germans are so obviously the bad guys. In “War Horse” the only true evil is “distance” and “loneliness.” This little story about the two German brothers/soldiers, who try to abandon the war, is unique in its telling because they aren’t shown as “bad,” and you really feel sad when they meet their end.
The next act is another favorite as it shows the war from the civilian side. A young French girl, Emilie, then comes into possession of Joey. Her brief story is a charming reprieve before the war also rips Joey away from her. Celine Buckens makes her film debut as Emilie and she’s definitely a young star to continue to watch.
The next few parts of the film return Joey back to the battlefield and German hands. Life is a bit more exhausting and hard on the horse, but again, a young soldier finds kinship with the remarkable horse. Keeping in mind that the film has been going for nearly two hours now, audiences are finally reminded of Joey’s original human friend, Albert, who is now fighting for the English army and searching for his horse. The war scenes in this part of the film are remarkable because they really highlight (accurately) some of the horrors of the war: life in the trenches, barbed wire traps, poison gas’ chaotic damage and much more. There’s also another charming story about a momentary cease fire that gives audiences a break from war horror.
You can probably guess where the last thirty minutes of the film lead and while the plot at this point isn’t a surprise, the presentation is one. There is a happy ending, but it is a bit bittersweet and really reminds audiences that war doesn’t really have any truly happy conclusions.
So yes, “War Horse” is “epic” and it is beautiful. But it is also long. It relies heavily on moviegoers’ patience and ability to care for an animal protagonist. There is a great ending, but it is a tedious journey before you can reach it.