Steven Spielberg has for the majority of his career depended on sentimental storytelling and for the most part that has worked in spades. Spielberg is a true master of this type of cinema as he makes you care for the characters while mixing it in with dazzling visuals. Spielberg's latest film, War Horse, is not like that. War Horse actually feels like it is directed by a Spielberg-ripoff.
War Horse follows the relationship between a boy (a terribly miscast Jeremy Irvine) and his horse, Joey as it is tested by the first World War.
Unfortunately, throughout the over two hour runtime the Steven Spielberg we love rarely shows up. There are moments when we get to see the talent that this master director has, such as in a magnificently staged battle sequence (when are Spielberg battle sequences not?), but those are few and far between. For the most part, War Horse is filled with scenes that setup a relationship you never believe in and other scenes that try to make you feel for the characters. All of these scenes are lazily executed with the exception of vignette early in the film centered on a Major and Captain in the British cavalry. Even that scene only succeeds because of the actors who carry it (breakthrough actors Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch). To sum this up, it seems that Spielberg didn't even try for this film and it features a lousy script from Richard Curtis and Lee Hall. It seems as if these two didn't even try to hide the fact that the script is based on a children's book despite the film being intended for adults.
The one nice touch that Spielberg brings to the film is the "old school" filmmaking style he uses. The film is very reminiscent of John Ford and David Lean films, but most of the hard work to achieve this effect was on the shoulders of the crafts people. Janusz Kaminski's cinematography goes a little overboard at times (especially during the final scene of the film), but his portrayal of war is striking. John Williams gives a very John Williams-esque score but the central piece from it is quite memorable. The other visual components of the film are perfectly suited to the era and the sound of the film is stunning. One of the main reasons Spielberg's war films are so memorable is the chaos that the sound brings to the film. War Horse is a perfect example of that.
The large cast is a mixed bag. The main vignette involving a boy (Jeremy Irvine) and his parents (Emily Watson and Peter Mullan) is the least interesting of the bunch. Most of that is due to the acting. Mullan plays a good drunk but nothing else. Watson is completely wasted and Jeremy Irvine doesn't look like a boy and can't carry the film. The following vignette starring Tom Hiddleston and Benedict Cumberbatch is by far the best. It's pretty average besides one striking image at its conclusion, but the actors are phenomenal. There is a reason why these two Brits are having breakout years, and it is on full display here as Hiddleston and Cumberbatch mesmerize the audience with little screentime. Niels Aretsrup stars in the next vignette and he does a good job with his character until he is character assassinated in the final act and the other vignette stars the Germans where no actor makes any impression.
It's quite disappointing to see Spielberg failed to give us a memorable film with two chances in the past month. War Horse just seems like a top notch director taking it easy on the job.