The London stage version won 2 Olivier Awards; it picked up 6 Tony Awards in New York.
But will you like the movie?
“War Horse” finds director Steven Spielberg melding together the two genres he’s most well known for: children’s fairy tale and epic, tragic war story. Under any other circumstances, a film about the improbable, family-friendly journey of one sad-eyed boy’s sad-eyed horse during the Great War would be a perfectly respectable by-the-numbers entry in the expansive catalogue of the 65-year old master.
Except that, unlike Joey, the film’s unkempt and hot-tempered equine star who trots from the Allies to the Germans and back again over the course of the story, “War Horse” is bred from a far too impressive pedigree. The original 1982 children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo was runner-up for Britain’s prestigious Whitbread Award. And of greater significance, the book’s stage adaptation, which debuted in London in 2007 and made its way to Broadway this year, has already become a touchstone of 21st-century theater, racking up Tony awards and ticket grosses like so much hay.
All this grand acclaim can be traced primarily to the unique experience War Horse provides on stage, through nontraditional, eye-popping production design that communicates the expansive sweep of the story. And, most crucially, to the horse itself, a massive, lifelike skeletal puppet controlled by people encased within Joey’s hide.
But Spielberg’s film version is compelled by some sense of motion-picture traditionalism to eschew the puppets. This is the cinema, dammit, not some streetside marionette show. There’s a soaring John Williams score, for God’s sake. Who would want to watch human-controlled fake animals when they could be watching human-trained real animals instead? (Pay no attention to that man behind the Kermit.)
And so the movie of “War Horse” of course uses actual horses, thereby compromising the fundamental hook (or gimmick, or whatever you want to call it) of the play. What’s left is “Black Beauty”; it’s “National Velvet”; it’s “Seabiscuit” and “Secretariat”; it’s any number of those other “that’s a mighty fine horse you got there” movies, without ever becoming its own beast. Ironically for a filmed adaptation of a play, the sudden intrusion of reality over abstraction renders the action less engaging.
This is not to speak ill of the human performers, a committed all-European cast including stage actor Jeremy Irvine as the emotionally fragile boy who initially trains Joey, Tom Hiddleston (“Midnight In Paris”) as the army captain who forces Joey to serve his country by diving headlong into battle and standout Niels Arestrup (“A Prophet”) as a French grandfather whose touching performance complicates the issue of horse ownership.
It’s also not to speak ill of Spielberg’s impressive commitment to old-school grandiosity. Even though this is his first film to be edited digitally, the movie contains only three seconds worth of special effects, quite a rebellious feat for such a big-budget production. Such a commitment to old technologies helps to highlight the film’s central absurdity: that the steeds of World War I were absurdly outmatched, charging into dense swamps of bombs and automatic weapons, their riders armed with every expectation they would not emerge.
All in all, though, the strongly enforced traditionalism amounts to little more than a dewey-eyed historical re-imagining, like something that might be played on a continuous loop in the background of a museum exhibit on the role of equestrians in World War I. Spielberg didn’t necessarily have to bring the puppet back for the big screen, but it would have been nice if one of the most grandly imaginative directors in Hollywood had seemed fit to make this adaptation a bit more … fantastical.
Well, at least that’s still one mighty fine horse.
“War Horse” opens Christmas Day, 2011 in wide release throughout the area.
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis; based on the book by Michael Morpurgo
Starring Jeremy Irvine, Tom Hiddleston, Emily Watson
In wide release
Richard Seff reviews the stage version of War Horse calling it a “Must See” for its direction and puppetry, but notes “ the play itself is more or less “Lassie Come Home” minus dog, plus horse.”