Starring Jeremy Irvine, David Thewlis & Emma Watson
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Rated PG-13, 146 min.
Release date Dec. 25, 2011
A horse is a horse, of course, of course—but the horse in director Steven Spielberg's sweeping, sentimental new drama is no wisecracking Mr. Ed.
War Horse, based on the children's book that became a hit Broadway play, is the powerful tale of a spirited stallion sold off his farmland home in the English countryside and pressed into military service on the muddy, bloody battlefields of World War I.
Joey, as he's named by Albert, the young British teen who raises him, is an exceptional steed who touches the lives of everyone with whom he comes in contact—the British cavalry officer who rides him into a spray of bullets, the soldiers who harness him to haul the machinery of war, the kindly French farmer and his granddaughter who shelter him.
But will Joey and Albert ever be reunited?
That's the heart-tugging question that drives War Horse, even when Albert gets news that makes him think his beloved warmblood has surely been lost.
Spielberg assembles a broad, Brit-centric cast that includes David Thewlis (from the Harry Potter movies) and Emily Watson (who starred alongside Adam Sandler Punch Drunk Love). Newcomer Jeremy Irvine makes his movie debut as Albert.
But the real star is the horse—or, rather, the horses—that play Joey, upon which the focus remains although the settings change and other characters come and go, often tragically. Spielberg, his longtime, go-to cinematographer Jasusz Kaminski, and the animal trainers do a truly masterful job of conveying the personality, emotions and thoughts of the beautiful, magnificent "beast" whose amazing journey takes him so far, far away from home.
The movie looks gorgeous and grand, befitting its epic expanse of hardship, heartache and hope. It doesn't flinch from the historical realities of a war in which hundreds of thousands of horses perished, killed by artillery fire, consumed by disease or starvation, or worked literally to death.
It's not gory, but it's reassuring to know that no animals were actually in any way harmed in the moviemaking process. Keep reminding yourself of that.
One episode, in which a panicked Joey becomes entangled in barbed wire, is especially wrenching to watch. That incident, however, sets up the movie's most uplifting scene, in which a British soldier and his German counterpart meet in the middle of the "no man's land" battlefield and work together to free him.
When the story finally comes back around in a marvelous full circle, and Spielberg's closing plays out wordlessly against a spectacular orange and golden sunset, it's one of the most beautiful, shamelessly sentimental movie moments of the year.
Make sure you've packed some tissues in the saddlebag. You're gonna need 'em.