After decades of moviemaking years spent honing his craft and sifting through the industry's best collaborators to form a cinematic dream team Steven Spielberg is one of the few directors whose films routinely hit a bar of high quality. Even his more haphazard efforts are competently constructed and executed with unbridled passion reeling in audiences with drama adventure and big screen fun. There really isn't a "bad" Spielberg movie. His latest War Horse isn't in the top tier of the grandmaster's filmography but as a work of pure sentimentality and spectacle the film delivers rousing entertainment. Makes sense: a horse's heart is about eight times the size of a human's and War Horse's is approximately that much bigger than every other movie in 2011.
The titular equine is Joey a horse born in the English countryside in 1914 who triumphantly navigates the ravished European landscape during the first World War. A good hour of the 146 minute film is spent establishing the savvy creature's friendship with his first owner Albert (Jeremy Irvine). A farmer boy with a penchant for animal training Albert copes with his alcoholic father Ted (Peter Mullan) and their homestead's dwindling funds but finds much needed hope in the sprite Joey. After blessing Albert and company with a few miracles Ted makes the wise decision of selling Joey off to the war and the real adventure begins.
Like Forrest Gump of the animal kingdom the lucky stallion finds himself intertwined with an eclectic handful of persons. He encoutners the owner of a British Captain preparing a surprise attack. He becomes the ride for two German army runaways the prized possession of young French girl and her grandfather and the unifier of two warring soldiers in the battlefield's No Man's Land. From the beginning to the end of the war Joey miraculously sees it all all in hopes of one day crossing Albert's path again.
Spielberg avoids any over-the-top Mr. Ed techniques in War Horse but amazingly the horses employed to play Joey deliver a riveting muted "performance" that's alive on screen. The animal is the lead of the movie his human co-stars (including Thor's Tom Hiddleston The Reader's David Kross and Toby Kebbell of Prince of Persia) sprinkled around Joey to complicate his (and our) experience of war.
But even with a stellar cast working at full capacity War Horse falters thanks to its episodic nature. It is a movie of moments—awe-inspiring breathtaking and heartfelt—stuffed with long stretches of underdeveloped characters guiding us through meandering action. Spielberg's longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski makes the varying environments visually enthralling—from the dark blue hues of war to rolling green hills backdropped with stunning sunsets—and John Williams' score matches the film's epic scope but without Albert in the picture's second half War Horse simply gallops around in circles.
Spielberg is a master craftsman and War Horse a masterful craft but the movie lacks a necessary intimacy to hook us into the story's bigger picture. The ensemble's devotion and affection for Joey sporadically resonates—how could it not? Look at that adorable horse!—but even those emotional beats border on goofy (at one point Hiddleston's character decides to sketch Joey a moment I found eerily reminiscent of Jack sketching Rose in Titanic). War Horse really hits its stride when Spielberg pulls back the camera and lets his keen eye for picturesque composition do the talking. Or from Joey's perspective neighing.
There are distinct echoes of Alan Alda’s The Four Seasons and Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill here as the film focuses on four couples who have been friends since their college days. Periodically they get together and ask themselves the title question as they re-examine their relationships. There’s Janet Jackson as Patricia the college lecturer whose best-selling book is based on her friends’ relationships. Patricia and her husband Gavin (Malik Yoba) are trying to hold their marriage together after the loss of their young son in a tragic car accident. The cocky Mike (Richard T. Jones) flaunts an adulterous relationship in front of his insecure overweight wife Shelia (Jill Scott) who is completely oblivious to the deception. Terry (Perry himself) is a successful pediatrician trying to convince his wife Diane (Sharon Leal)--a successful attorney in her own right--to have more kids. Marcus (Michael Jai White) a former pro football player merely tries to get through the day without a tongue-lashing from his acerbic wife Angela (Tasha Smith) a woman not known for keeping her opinions to herself regardless of how appropriate the circumstances. All of them find themselves confronting career demands family demands infidelity incompatibility and mistrust--all while drinking far too much wine. Needless to say before their get-together is over a number of secrets will be divulged and each couple will find their relationships shaken to their respective cores. Forgoing the housedress of his cinematic alter-ego “Madea ” Perry proves an affable screen personality quite relaxed within the ensemble. Jones doesn’t go out of his way to make Mike in any way likable which makes his one of the more memorable and clearly defined characters in the entire cast. Although Smith gets all the sassy lines White easily steals their scenes together with a surprisingly appealing comic turn. Hunky Lamman Rucker plays a dreamboat sheriff who finds himself drawn into this ever-shifting circle of friends. The women have a tougher go of it with Jackson giving a tremulous performance that makes her character almost disappear into the background. Yoba is also low-key although more affectingly so as her onscreen spouse. Leal does what she can with the stock role of a career woman who takes her home life for granted but she fares better than Scott whose crying scenes--and there are more than one--ground the story to a halt. All told however the ensemble cast has an easy and relaxed chemistry together which keeps the film--as soapy as uneven as it often is--afloat throughout. Tyler Perry doesn’t open up his stage play to any major degree preferring to leave the emphasis on characters and dialogue--both of which incidentally he has created. Perry tends to approach these intricate topics with broad (but not irrelevant) strokes but he’s not about to tamper with a successful formula. Like most of Perry’s previous films (Diary of a Mad Black Woman Madea*s Family Reunion et. al.) Why Did I Get Married? runs on a bit and overstates its case but its heart’s in the right place.