Once upon a time, Steven Spielberg used to be one of the most influential directors ever lived in the modern generation who spawned hits after hits that impresses the critics as well as many viewers around the world. But in 2011, his much-anticipated return to the director's seat after the 2008's INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL proves to be a mediocre year for him. First off, he made the highly-anticipated animated adventure THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN, which is fairly entertaining in parts but rather predictable in its overall execution. The second one is WAR HORSE, a would-be epic tale that combines a heartwarming children's drama mixed with World War I undertones. Spielberg should have no problem executing such genre, but it's really surprising that WAR HORSE is all about great visuals but falls terribly short in narrative structure and emotional factor.
Based on Michael Morpurgo's popular 1982 novel, the movie centers on an unbreakable bond between a horse named Joey and a young owner named Albert (Jeremy Irvine) when his hard-drinking father Ted (Peter Mullan) brought the animal back home from an auction. His mother Rose (Emily Watson) is shocked and disappointed after she learns that Ted bought the horse at an unbelievably expensive price and demands the horse to be taken away. But Albert likes the horse so much he swears he will trains him hard so the horse can be useful one day. Albert's continuous hard work of training Joey proves to be a good payoff but their happy moments together is abruptly cut short when hard times prevailed during the start of World War I. Albert has no choice but to bid a sad farewell to Joey, where he is required to lease over his horse to Capt. Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston).
After Joey is send away in preparation for Nicholls to ride him during a battle against the German army, he fails to maintain the horse and ended giving up to the two German brothers, Gunther (David Kross) and Michael (Leonard Carow). After a short time later, Joey is subsequently discovered by a young French girl named Emilie (Celine Buckens), who insists she and her grandfather (Niels Arestrup) must keep him at all cost. But the ongoing World War I forces Joey to part again. Will Joey survives long enough to reunite with Albert again?
In term of visuals, WAR HORSE is a beautifully-mounted picture blessed with top-notch production values. Janusz Kaminski's cinematography is majestic enough that reminds the kind of old-fashioned epic made in the yesteryears (e.g. GONE WITH THE WIND). Rick Carter's grand production design is impeccable, while the sound effects (especially its galloping horse and gunfire) are meticulously detailed. Likewise, Spielberg displays a sense of urgency when comes to action set-piece, even though his movie is watered down into PG-13. Among them is the exciting ambush sequence between the British and the German soldiers. Another one, of course, is the daring escape scene where Joey finally had enough and decides to run across the war zone with guns blazing and explosions everywhere until he gets caught up in a mess of barbed wires. Ironically though, this is Spielberg's first World War I picture after years of tackling WWII dramas.
However, WAR HORSE happens to be a huge disappointment as well. Lee Hall and Richard Curtis's adapted screenplay fails to inject the necessary emotional drive needed for this kind of movie. Despite its interesting themes, the movie feels like a tired slog at an overlong 146 minutes. The characters are also disappointingly cut-rate. Even the lead newcomer Jeremy Irvine and the presence of veteran actors like Peter Mullan and Emily Watson, are sadly underutilized. Only Joey the horse emerges upfront with the more expressive and heartrending performance than any of the human casts combined here.