At two and a half hours, Steven Spielberg's family drama War Horse at times feels as long as war itself. But with so many movies abandoning classic filmmaking for digital gimmickry and other post-production tricks these days, there's something admirably quaint about the director's old-fashioned approach to storytelling (which balances out his other movie opening this week, the CGI Adventures of Tintin).
British farm boy Albert Narracott (newcomer Jeremy Irvine) lives with his strong-willed mother and alcoholic father (Emily Watson and Peter Mullan) at the dawn of World War I. After another day of boozing, Dad spends way too much money on a horse at auction. The plan is to put the horse, which Albert names Joey, to work on the barren fields that are the family's only means of income. But Joey is as stubborn as the rest of the Narracott clan at first.
He's eventually sold to the cavalry, which takes him on a journey across Europe and to both sides of the war. The movie may be adapted from a classic young-adult novel and popular stage version, but the heroic battle scenes are all Spielberg (with some help from his longtime cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski).
The director doesn't rush a thing here. From Joey's birth and breaking to his enlistment and adventures, Spielberg doesn't cut away or use editing tricks to speed up the story. You get to know Joey, as well as the various people he meets along the way, including a French jelly-maker (an excellent Niels Arestrup) and two German soldier brothers.
Modern-day moviegoers may be confused by the film's deliberate pace. Unfortunately, they may also be turned off and bored. But stick with it: War Horse's quiet charms will win you over. Movies aren't made like this anymore; people simply don't have the attention spans for heartwarming, heartbreaking, and occasionally hokey epics like this. But, as Spielberg expertly proves throughout this wonderful movie, breathtaking period pieces never go out of style. --Michael Gallucci
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