There is no point in saying War Horse ‘doesn’t work well’, because it works more than well. The majority of people will leave the cinema satisfied; their hearts full and tear ducts empty. So how can that be wrong? Films are made for certain audiences and Spielberg is the audience whisperer. He knows what the mass crowd generally respond to — gone are the days of Jaws and Close Encounters where there was room left for doubt – and his target demographic of the ‘something in my eye’ types will no doubt be won over by this tooth-rottingly sweet tale of a boy and his horse. As for me, the film takes a few tentative steps in the right direction before drudging itself into a saccharine coma of fairytale morality.
We begin with Albert (Jeremy Irvine) bonding with his father’s recently purchased horse named Joey on a farm in Devon. These opening scenes are pleasantly whimsical, unapologetically revelling in the archetypal rural Britain, complete with Wurzle ‘oo-arr’-ing, weathered cloth caps and an overprotective goose. But, facing financial ruin, Albert’s father suddenly sells Joey to the cavalry for the efforts in World War One, and so begins the plodding emotional journey that charts the eponymous animal’s cross-continental odyssey through the entire four year breadth of the war. What attempts to be a record of hope and courage in the face of conflict soon becomes so episodic that it feels as if the narrative structure was assembled from a batch of individual instalments of a History Channel series. Such a picaresque approach to the brutal folly of war struggles to elevate the characters we meet above a one-dimensional caricature. And how can we identify with a horse supposedly pining for its soulmate when it appears quite content to be anywhere that has some spare hay lying around?
Of course the bloody battlefield sequences are viscerally effective, but these sporadic forays of flair make up only a fraction of the film. What’s left in their absence, depending on your personal affinity for childhood yearning and adult grief, is either a heart-warming tear-jerker or a fairly daunting assault of weepy denouements. It has its share of exhilarating moments – a tracking shot of Joey bolting through No Man’s Land is truly breathtaking – yet these epic-scaled set pieces are smothered beneath an increasingly tiresome parade of grindingly overwrought emotional payoffs. There’s even a scene where Joey becomes entangled in barbed wire, which cynically tugs on the heartstrings with almost surgical skill. ‘War Horse’ milks its tears through mawkish tenacity, picking away until it draws its blood, and continues to bludgeon you into submission with endless emotional clichés until, after 146 minutes, our equine hero finally runs into the waiting arms of Spielberg-sanctioned immortality.