The first thing that becomes apparent as John Williams’ instantly classic score begins to swell under the opening shots of War Horse is how much we’ve missed this. We, as an audience, have spent quite a long time without a warm, inspirational Steven Spielberg movie arriving in theaters, and we’ve desperately needed one. With the exception of the much-maligned Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Spielberg’s fare has been rather dark and introspective in recent decades, leaving behind the sunny family fare he made a name with in exchange for more adult subject matter. A film about WWI may not seem like the road back to the lighthearted days of yore, but that’s exactly what War Horse has to offer. With a PG-13 rating that aims to imply more than it explicitly shows, the violence of the war itself may be curtailed, but the emotions certainly aren’t. You can’t help but get caught up and invested with these characters, and the slow first act slogs through the foundations of the relationships, ensuring that once the bullets start flying, we know who we’re supposed to care about.
For those who have seen the play at Lincoln Center, there shouldn’t be much of a surprise here. Instead of a puppet you have a beautiful live horse, something I find it hard to imagine going without, and you have the scale and scope of a studio budgeted war picture. The canvas really is quite expansive, and as we journey with the horse, and his original owner, we get to see a lot of what life was like on the ground in Europe. Because of the seemingly endless swapping of owners, we’re also introduced to a plethora of great supporting parts, little vignettes that serve to inform our understanding of the different sides of the conflict. The horse also happens to be one of the best actors in the film, and I haven’t the faintest idea how they managed to train it to do all the different stunts and subtle character interactions. There were probably multiple horses involved, but it’s still a tremendous feat to imbue an animal with this level of depth and development.
The actors all do quite well, especially considering most of them are not household names by any stretch of the imagination. The little girl who you meet about halfway through the film, in particular, has an astonishing amount of screen presence and charm, harkening back to some of the other great child performances that Spielberg has achieved in his illustrious career. Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch make for a great British commanding unit, and Emily Watson and David Thewlis get to chew the scenery a bit towards the start of the film, two truly talented character actors getting to go head to head. You care for each and every one of them, and as the film progresses and some are lost, others are discovered, building a sympathetic rewards system where you find yourself alternating between joy and sadness, sometimes within the same moment, and losing yourself completely in the magic of moviemaking.
A couple of things to consider. This is a long movie. At two and a half hours, it feels exactly its length, and if you’re not committed to putting that much into it, you probably shouldn’t see it in a theater. Once things get going, it moves very well, but the beginning can be particularly slow paced and hard to get used to. The other thing is that, while a tremendous filmmaker, some may feel Spielberg to be too manipulative of his audience. He packs a whole stack of tear jerking moments into the buildup to the finale, and you really have to be willing to let yourself be taken along for the ride. Resisting the pull will make the movie hard to watch, and I wouldn’t recommend it for the overly cynical or close-minded among us. There was at least one such gentleman in the audience for our screening, and his commentary was ruining some of the most tender moments. It’s a great family film, and if you bring along your own tissues, a wonderful release of a movie. Just make sure you’re up for what this journey has in store.