December 31, 2011

MOVIES: War Horse (Steven Spielberg, 2011)

How familiar a story is War Horse? So familiar that you could begin the movie with an old-fashioned soap opera-style voice over: "In today's remake of Lassie Come Home, the role of Lassie will be played by a horse."

That horse is Joey, who's raised and trained by Albert, and oh, how they love one another. But then World War I comes along, and Albert's father is forced to sell Joey to the military in order to save the family farm.

So it's off to France for poor Joey, who gets to live out every WWI movie cliche you can think of -- he hauls artillery, gets captured by the Germans, hides out in a French windmill. He's even rescued from No Man's Land in one of those scenes where a British soldier and a German soldier venture timidly out under flag of truce in order to save the horse, because goddamm it, Joey is just that special.

Making Joey the protagonist of the movie has the odd effect of making War Horse a movie that is utterly disinterested in who wins the war. English, German, who cares as long as Joey survives? Albert's nearly blinded by mustard gas, but that's not important; we have to worry about Joey's injured leg.

And if you're annoyed by the anthropomorphizing of animals, then you're going to hate this movie, in which Joey sacrifices himself for his horsey BFF and is treated as though he has the full range of human emotions.

It seems almost silly to comment on the human beings here, but there are some pleasant performances to be found. Emily Watson and Peter Mullan ooze devotion as Albert's parents; Niels Arestrup is all grandfatherly concern as a French jam-maker; David Thewlis brings comic mustache-twirling villainy as the evil landlord.

If you enjoy old-fashioned sentimentality, then you'll love War Horse. But Steven Spielberg is working so hard to create an old fashioned John Ford experience, without adding anything new to the mix, that you might as well just go to Netflix and watch an actual Ford movie.

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