My feelings towards the ouevre of Steven Spielberg is slightly complicated. Some of his movies are undeniably brilliant. E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial is one of the most beautiful children’s films ever made. On a similar note, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence is the most under-rated film of his career and (thanks largely to the contributions of Stanley Kubrick) one of my favorite science fiction films of the 2000s. Munich is the best thing Spielberg has made in years and was a clever deconstruction of the espionage/revenge film. Schindler’s List may have its flaws but I’ll be damned if that film didn’t do more to create a gut, visceral reaction to the Holocaust than any history book ever has. The man is one of the undisputed masters of visual storytelling. Still, when his scripts are crap, his films are going to be a mess, and War Horse is possibly the worst film in the entire Spielberg library, and the only reason it’s not the worst film nominated for Best Picture in 2011 is because The Help beat it to the punch with its incessant self-aggrandizement and racial condescension.

On the eve of World War I in Devon, Englang, a drunk, tenant farmer (Peter Mullan) buys a headstrong and stubborn (but beautiful) horse to plow the fields on his family farm. Ted spends the last of his money on the horse (mainly to show up his land lord), and if this untrained colt can’t learn to plow the fields, the family will lose everything. The son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine in his big-screen premiere), takes it upon himself to train the horse, who he names Joey. The pair form an instant and unbreakable bond, and not only does Albert train Joey to plow the fields and save the family form, they become best friends. When a massive rainstorm destroys all of the family’s crops, Albert’s father is forced to sell Joey to the British cavalry to serve in World War I. Separated by war and the miles between nations, Albert vows to Joey that they’ll be together again one day, but Joey is heading to the frontline of one of the most devastating wars in history. Will the pair be reuinited or will the Great War consume them both?

I must give credit where credit’s due. Spielberg is still one of the great visual directors of all time, and War Horse was just stunning. To lend credence to its nostalgic idealism and (supposed) sincerity, it was shot on film stock, and the film is just a glory to behold. Whether it’s the beautiful shots of the British countryside, the horrors of World War I trench warfare, or a heartbreaking and ill-advised cavalry ride, few people know how to frame a shot for maximum entertainment value as well as maximum beauty. While I take considerable umbrage with this film’s nomination for Best Picture, every single Oscar it was nominated for in technical categories were well-deserved. The score was especially sweeping and majestic but do we expect anything less from John Williams these days. I even respect Spielberg’s decision to tone down the graphic violence of the war scenes (as opposed to what we’d expect from him since Saving Private Ryan) because it’s a children’s film (admittedly one about the horrors of World War I) and that wouldn’t gibe with many parents. He was still able to create a sense of dread, horror, and heartbreak with almost no blood whatsoever in the film.

Unfortunately the script/story at the heart of the film was such melodramatic, sappy, and idealistic drivel that I kept scoffing at some of the film’s most important, dramatic moments because I couldn’t make the suspension of disbelief that the film required. All of the circumstances were too contrived. The endings were too neatly wrapped up. The characters were all as flat as you can imagine with little to no growth throughout (despite my suspicions that this film was also meant to be a tale of growing up). There’s supposed to be an innocent, simplicity to Spielberg’s film, and I respect his intentions. But when you insult the intelligence of your viewers with a plot that is completely implausible, no one’s going to buy your premise. The film was so sickeningly sweet that it should carry a warning that it may give viewers diabetes. Spielberg’s other, most child-like films were such instant classics because they explored child-like innocence while ultimately subverting and acknowledging the truth of youth. Instead, War Horse seems like a story that would come from a book that your elementary school teachers forced you to read because it won the Newberry Medal.

Some people may call me out for accusing the film of being cloyingly optimistic when it still features the deaths of so many people (several of which who are teenagers), but those moments impact less on an emotional level and instead re-inforce the artifice at the heart of the film. I could never fully invest in the never-ending stream of cliches and antiquated tropes at the heart of War Horse, and for that, I find myself severely disappointed in Steven Spielberg for the first time in years. I had to watch this movie because the copy of The Descendants that Netflix sent me was busted, and in a sick karmic joke, I had to sit through this exercise in banality. I only recommend War Horse to serious equestrians (because even I must admit that the film made me cry towards the end but that’s not hard to do) and hardcore Spielberg loyalists only because he is the type of director who has earned your attention even when he makes a subpar film. Everyone else can stay away from this melodramatic mess while I continue to question the Academy’s decision to nominate more than 5 films for Best Picture or how this was a more worthy nominee than The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo?

Final Score: C+

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