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Movie Review: War Horse

December 23, 2011

War Horse – A DreamWorks Pictures’ Release

Release Date: December 25th, 2011

Rated PG for violence

Running time: 146 minutes

Steven Spielberg (dir.)

Lee Hall (screenplay)

Richard Curtis (screenplay)

Based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo

John Williams (music)

Jeremy Irvine as Albert Narracott

Peter Mullan as Ted Narracott

Emily Watson as Rose Narracott

Niels Arestrup as Grandfather

David Thewlis as Lyons

Tom Hiddleston as Captain Nicholls

Benedict Cumberbatch as Maj. Jamie Stewart

Celine Buckens as Emilie

Toby Kebbell as Geordie Soldier

Patrick Kennedy as Lt. Charlier Waverly

©DreamWorks Pictures.  All Rights Reserved.

Joey and Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) in War Horse.

Our reviews below:


War Horse Review By John C.

*** (out of 4)

Based on the children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo, War Horse is Steven Spielberg’s first big movie in several years and in terms of being an Oscar contender, it’s the perfect example of good but not great.  This is a movie that is epic and sweeping in the fact that it spans the entire first World War, but is confined by the lack of proper character development and always changing narrative.  It’s spectacular in terms of production, but sometimes disappointingly limited when it comes to the execution.  I often liked the film but didn’t love it, so this is bound to be a review of mixed emotions.

Our story starts in 1914 on a farm in the beautiful English countryside, with Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) buying a horse named Joey that his family can’t really afford.  His wife (Emily Watson) is furious, but their son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) forms an inseparable bond with the animal.  But then the war breaks out and because they need the money, Joey is sold to the cavalry under the care of soldier Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston).  The horse changes hands throughout the years, going though the war with no human conceptions about who is the enemy.

There are several spectacularly produced sequences in War Horse that remind us this is the work of a master filmmaker.  Although this isn’t Steven Spielberg’s best film, the cinematography is always striking and there are some beautifully shot scenes.  In one particularly memorable sequence, Joey gallops over the empty battlefields set to the music of John Williams.  Equally memorable is a touching scene where soldiers from both sides are forced to work together to save the horse from being entangled in barbed wire.  Another moment that lingers in the mind is the hauntingly perfect use of a turning windmill blade.

But there are also entire scenes that feel as if they add nothing but minutes to the overlong 146-minute running time, and serious pacing issues with the first half of the film before we reach the superior last act.  A sub-plot with a French grandfather (Niels Arestrup) and his very annoying granddaughter (Celine Buckens) that randomly comes up in the middle of the movie seems to belong in another film entirely.  The fact that the granddaughter has a brittle bone condition for no particular reason is just shamelessly melodramatic.  I get the point was to show how many people Joey meets over his journey, but the lingering pace of these scenes doesn’t match the urgency of the thrilling war sequences.

Many of the human characters are fleeting and underdeveloped, making it hard to form a true emotional connection to any of them.  There are a few genuinely touching scenes, but also ones that feel as if they could have been edited without having any effect on the story.  What War Horse needed was character development.  The leading performances are all fine, but the human counterparts often don’t feel like they were written as fully formed human beings.  The story of Joey is compelling on its own, but without true human characters, the reunion scenes between species lack the emotional involvement that they so clearly needed.  The sequences in the trenches that focus more purely on the animals are by far the best.

I’ve been a fan of Steven Spielberg for years and also had a lot of fun with his current animated film The Adventures of Tintin, so perhaps this was part of the reason why I found myself a little underwhelmed by War Horse.  But on the flipside, the beautiful cinematography will make many want to see it on the big screen.  So I guess the final mixed emotions of my review will be to say that War Horse is a perfectly fine film for older kids and adults to see over Christmas, but there was potential here for so much more if only there had been a little less.  In the end, good but not great is the best way that I can describe it.


War Horse Review by Erin V.  

*** (out of 4)

War Horse tells the story of Joey, a young horse who is owned and raised by a boy named Albert (Jeremy Irvine), but when WWI breaks out, Albert’s father sells the horse to the army because they need the money.  And thus begins the adventures of Joey, now a ‘war horse.’  On his travels in and out of battle, he meets many.  Capt. Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) is his first new owner and rider into battle, but later on Joey finds himself behind German lines, and his paths cross those of two young German soldiers, a girl and her grandfather living in the French countryside, a horse named Topthorn, and more.

The tone fluctuates wildly throughout, and the score (by John Williams) while nice enough, unfortunately only has a few moments of greatness.  In terms of other aspects, some of the shots feel out of place, as do a few moments of humour.  While there is a lot of nice scenery, I found myself noticing the shots possibly more than I should have – as though the cinematography was calling attention to itself rather than serving the story in the best possible way at times.  Although, I must note that there were a few key instances, such as the scenes in battle or a scene with a windmill, that are filmed impeccably well – it was mostly the stuff on the farm at the beginning that felt a bit off.  The lighting in the final scene is also distracting and certainly not natural looking.  The acting was mostly fine, although again, nothing standout.  Plus, overall, the trailer does mislead the story slightly.

Don’t get me wrong, I liked the overall story, although like the original book (which is very close with only a few changes), we never keep to any one character long enough to really create an emotional connection, thus the film feels a bit distant and sparse.  Plus, it’s two and a half hours long.  The book was told from Joey’s POV, and here too, he is the only one that is on-screen in every scene.  In fact, one strong suit of the story is the fact that the horse does not take sides as a human would, giving us an interesting perspective on war.  Basically, so long as those are treating him nicely, he does not care which side they are on.  The one scene in the film that reaches greatness (and I will not spoil it) takes place with only two soldiers and Joey in the middle of no-man’s-land.  It is this scene that sums up the fact that no matter who you agree with, in the war, both sides were human.  It was also in the moments leading up to this scene that the music worked the best in the film.

A little more editing, some story work, and a more driving thread to tie it all together could have served War Horse well.  I don’t know what the overall consensus will be, but I personally can not see it sweeping any awards.  Still, as a very ‘PG’ depiction of war, 11+ can watch this one, and many families of older kids over Christmastime will probably enjoy it.  Personally I would consider it a good film for what it is.


War Horse Review by Nicole

*** (out of 4)

Based on the children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo, War Horse is a beautiful film about one horse’s incredible journey through World War I.  When a poor farmer, Ted (Peter Mullan) buys a hunter colt for plowing, his son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) develops a strong bond with the horse, whom he names Joey.  But when England declares war with German, Joey gets sold into the cavalry unit.  There, he discovers both the horror of war and the cruel and senseless way humans sometimes treat fellow creatures.  But Joey also finds, among both so-called allied and enemy sides, individuals who show him great kindness and compassion.  Meanwhile, Albert is working hard to get his beloved horse back.

War Horse is not, as some are suggesting, an Oscar-worthy film.  The human characters are just not that well-developed.  However, the horse’s story is fascinating.  There are a lot of beautiful moments in this movie, as well as many sad ones.  But none of the violence contains any blood, making it suitable for kids who are old enough to read the novel.  Animal lovers will be pleased to know that the AHA approved this film, which even provided the horse actors with their own makeup artists.  War Horse is a moving film that both young and old can enjoy.


War Horse Review by Maureen

*** (out of 4)

War Horse is without question a visually beautiful movie to watch.  From the sweeping opening shots of the pastoral countryside where a baby foal is born to the scenes where young Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) is getting to know the handsome lead horse Joey, animal lovers are hooked.  However it takes more than pretty horses to make a great movie.

Based on the British children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo, well-respected director Steven Spielberg tells the story of one horse’s (Joey) experience as a workhorse in World War I.  War Horse follows Joey as he starts out in the British army as Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) horse.  As the war progresses Joey ends up being owned by German soldiers, then finds himself on a farm in France, then back again with German soldiers and eventually back in the British army.  All through it Joey is a loyal, hard-working war horse with none of the good vs. bad allegiances that the humans around him experience.

There are some truly beautiful and breathtaking moments in War Horse.  There are also some incredible battle scenes where the cinematography is spectacular.  The scenes where Joey is running off and jumping over trenches is one example.  The best scene in the film is when Joey is trapped by barbed wire in no man’s land and both British and German soldiers work together to free him.

The strength of War Horse is the beautiful cinematography and without question, Joey.  The human characters are simply background to the story and sometimes a distraction.  The human actors all give decent performances though none are overly memorable.  It’s obvious why the live theatrical performances of War Horse with the amazing horse puppets are so popular – the focus is on the horses.

The main drawback to this film is its length.  At over two hours the story drags on too long for most children.  Those under the age of ten will simply find the war scenes too scary.  Audiences who enjoy epic war movies or horse lovers will find War Horse appealing.  But fans of director Steven Spielberg might have mixed feelings on this one.  Overall, this is a good movie, though not as strong as it could have been.  However for older adults and families who want a movie that is free of language or inappropriate content, then War Horse is a good choice for a holiday visit to the theatre.


War Horse Review by Tony

*** (out of 4)

From a children’s book by the popular British author Michael Morpurgo, War Horse has been adapted as a hit stage play and is now a feature film from director Steven Spielberg. As the film opens in the Devon countryside, farm boy Albert (Jeremy Irvine) observes the birth of the title horse. About a year later, against his mother’s (Emily Watson) better judgement, his father (Peter Mullan) buys the horse at auction, even though it is bred more for running than ploughing. Albert calls the horse Joey and takes on the task of training him. Joey is extremely strong, spirited and intelligent, proving equally good at running and pulling. When World War I breaks out, Joey is pressed into service in the British cavalry, but except for a brief respite on a French farm, spends most of the war in the hands of the Germans hauling heavy artillery over the mud in what would amount to a death march for lesser beasts, before running away over no-man’s land to try to rejoin his countrymen. Meanwhile, Albert has enlisted hoping to find his friend on the battlefield.

Just as the book was narrated by Joey, aside from the bookending farm scenes the film War Horse concentrates on the horse with human characters mainly incidental and often nameless. This may be satisfying for kids, but for adults character development is missed for most of the people Joey encounters. The cast, mainly British with some Germans and French is generally good, though the French farmer (Niels Arestrup) and his granddaughter (Celine Buckens) were a bit of a distraction for me. Though actually born and bred in France, Arestrup speaks English with a strange accent (perhaps learned from his Danish parents) that is copied by Buckens, so that at first I wasn’t sure what country they were supposed to be in, especially with a windmill on the scene suggesting Holland or Belgium.

Though it is by no means Spielberg’s best film and at 146 minutes uncomfortably long, War Horse is generally well made. The brief war scenes strike a clever balance between horrible and sufficiently bloodless for the target family audience. The John Williams score, appropriately evoking the English pastoral style of Vaughan Williams, is pleasant if not memorable.

In summary, my feeling is that War Horse is a good and worthwhile film, not quite a great one.


Consensus: Steven Spielberg’s World War I saga War Horse is a film that older kids and adults can enjoy, as it generally overcomes the overlong 146-minute running time and thin character development with beautiful cinematography and several touching scenes involving the title animal.  *** (Out of 4)

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