The tagline for “War Horse” should’ve been “The Horror of War … for Kids.” Director Steven Spielberg’s (“The Adventures of Tintin”) latest film tries to straddle the divide between family schmaltz and war. As it is, “War Horse” is a battlefield trying to wear the constraints of a children’s movie. It simply doesn’t fit.

War Horse

At Quality 16 and Rave
Touchstone


The first part of the film, which drags on far too long, plays out like a tired riff on any number of “family pet” classics — just old-fashioned sentimentality. Then World War I strikes, and young, brave soldiers march off to the muddy trenches of France to fight and die. It was a war of unimaginable destruction — the war thought to end all wars.

That’s the sort of monster Spielberg is dealing with, but the audience is never dealt that visceral punch. Just think of Spielberg’s own “Saving Private Ryan.” Who could forget that opening scene, those infamous shots of men crying for their mothers? “Saving Private Ryan” was a vicious beast indeed. But in this story, centering around a horse named Joey lost in the battlefields of France, no such horrors are found.

That’s not to say there’s a bloodlust quota that war films must fill in order to satisfy the audience, but the full effect of violence is needed. This is exemplified by “Grave of the Fireflies,” an excellent Japanese anti-war anime, which showed minimal bloodshed yet is still nothing short of tragic.

Unsurprisingly, the best part of “War Horse” is Joey himself. He serves as a vehicle to transport the audience through the different stories, stripping away differences and conflicts, driving the whole film forward. Symbolically, he’s a manifestation of beauty, the pain that war brings and what it takes. In effect, he’s the slickest plot device seen in some time.

The problem: It’s just a horse. No nuance whatsoever. And that’s the problem with most of the characters of “War Horse.” They’re Mary Sues. Some of the performances are actually annoying, the most glaring being the lead actor Jeremy Irvine (TV’s “Life Bites”) as Albert Narracott. We get it, dude, you like your horse.

That said, there are some truly great scenes in “War Horse.” At times, you can’t help but root for the damned horse all the way home. The most memorable shot is that of a collection of soldiers watching a bombardment. They’re terrified, yes, but also enthralled by that awesome display of destruction. And sure, there are a few sobering moments to counter the film’s cheese-heavy mushiness — the most affecting being a soldier’s orders to shoot his own men if they retreat — but the film is too often afraid of telling its own story. Then again, the story is problematic in itself: Why insist on how terrible war is — while never showing its depravity — and then have everything work out fine and dandy in the end?

In this sense, oftentimes the film feels like a bedtime story being told on grandpa’s lap. True, it’s comforting and cute, but can we say those qualities apply to the nuances of war? For the most part, death has as little effect on the audience as a “Die Hard” sequel.

Yet despite its censored nature, the story’s argument shines through: Nothing is worth fighting for, but there are things worth living for. That alone is worthy of some praise.

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