It was a busy holiday season for Steven Spielberg.
First, he had "The Adventures of Tintin," a fast-moving, kid-friendly adventure in motion-capture 3-D (Bonus review! I give it a B+). That was followed soon after by "War Horse," a considerably different film.
"War Horse" is a sentimental epic set during World War I and revolving around a beautiful and brave equine.
As expected, it's lavishly filmed, though the period-perfect scenery never hides the fact that Spielberg is going to try to manipulate your emotions and pull your strings at every turn.
The 1982 children's novel (which was also adapted into an award-winning play), on which the story is based was told from the horse's point of view, but "War Horse" is forced to tell its tale using the humans who surround the hero.
The horse in question is a spirited young thoroughbred named Joey, who is purchased by a penniless farmer (Peter Mullan) and adored by the man's teen son Albert.
Joey is needed to save the family farm from a sneering landlord (David Thewlis), but when war hits, all good horses are needed in his majesty's service, and Joey begins a heroic trek that takes him from country to country and bounces him between a half-dozen different handlers.
"War Horse" leans on its story more than it does its actors. Though there are solid performances (Emily Watson is excellent as Albert's long-suffering mother), the only real standout performer is failed racehorse Finders Key — also the star of "Seabiscuit" — who plays Joey with convincing spirit and fire.
Jeremy Irvine, who plays Albert, the boy who follows his horse to war, has been pegged as a future star by many, but here his character is a little too earnest and maybe too devoted to his horse. To be honest, there was more than one instance when I thought he was channeling Sean Astin's Sam from "The Lord of the Rings," with Joey the Horse filling in for his dear Mr. Frodo.
"War Horse" features some spectacular action sequences — a glorious cavalry charge early in the war, a gripping look at trench warfare later — though Spielberg steers clear of the graphic images that he used in the World War II drama "Saving Private Ryan," making the film appropriate for most families.
The film overall, however, doesn't pack the emotional heft that it envisioned, perhaps because amidst the human suffering of WWI, it concentrates on the suffering of the animals.
"War Horse" won't ever end up on Spielberg's "A" list of films, but it's not a failure either.
Rental Recommendation: Spielberg introduced the world to young Christian Bale in the World War II story "Empire of the Sun." Grade: B
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