War Horse - Jeremy Irvine and Joey
Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) must part with his beloved horse Joey at the start of World War I © 2011 DreamWorks II Distribution

You wouldn’t think it possible that Steven Spielberg, one of the most successful mainstream directors of all time, could screw up War Horse, a movie about a boy’s love for a beloved horse that is taken from him and sent off to World War I.

This picturesque period piece should have been a total “gimme,” the kind of coming-of-age tale that the man behind family-friendly classics ranging from 1982’s ET The Extra-Terrestrial to this month’s The Adventures of Tintin could pull off in his sleep.

War Horse feels artificial

Unfortunately, War Horse feels so forced, foolish and artificial that it seems more cynical than sentimental. It doesn’t work as a kiddie flick, unless parents want their children to witness the disturbing spectacle of a horse becoming so realistically entangled in barbed wire that it collapses in agony and can’t move. Other aspects of the movie are too annoyingly juvenile to appeal to adults, such as the presence of a would-be funny goose whose farmyard antics are accompanied by “plucked strings” music that has all the subtlety of a bad cartoon. (The unwelcomely omnipresent score by Spielberg mainstay John Williams is like a repeated elbow to the ribs, leaving few cinematic moments free to fend for themselves.)

War Horse - Celine Buckens with Joey and Topthorn
At her grandfather

War Horse originated as a 1982 young adult novel by Michael Morpurgo that was adapted into a Tony Award-winning stage play in 2007. Struggling English farmer Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan), who intends to buy a simple workhorse, ends up in a bidding war with his villainously nasty landlord (David Thewlis) for an impractical thoroughbred instead. Wife Rosie (Emily Watson) isn’t pleased with the purchase, but son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) forms such a strong bond with the horse he names Joey that he convinces him to plow a rocky turnip field. Much scenic riding and literal horseplay ensues.

The horse is sold to the army

But when the Great War breaks out 45 minutes into the movie, money has gotten so tight that drunken and dejected dad sells Joey to the army. Thoughtful cavalry officer Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) promises to take good care of Joey, but Germans with machine guns make that difficult. Possession of Joey later shifts to German soldier brothers Gunther (David Kross) and Michael (Leonard Carow), and then to a feisty French farmgirl with brittle bones named Emilie (Celine Buckens) who lives with her storybook-twinkly grandfather (Niels Arestrup).

None of those vignettes are convincing or especially moving, which is really saying something, considering that most of Joey’s temporary masters end up dead. The screenplay by Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) and Richard Curtis (known primarily for Love Actually, Notting Hill and the brilliant Blackadder BBC TV series) never makes the kind of emotional connection required for the movie to earn the tears it so obviously hopes to jerk.

War Horse big-moment scenes are are impressive

Some elaborately staged big-moment scenes such as cavalry charges and trench-warfare battles are impressive, but as a whole the movie seems hollow and contrived. By the time Joey ends up silhouetted against a red-streaked Gone With the Wind sky before the end credits, it’s hard not to expect him to wink at the camera.

[Rating: 2 stars]

War Horse is released in theatres this week on December 25, 2011. The film is released in Australia on December 26 and in the UK on January 13, 2012.

The War Horse DVD can be found on Amazon here

James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer.