I was fortunate enough to see the play “War Horse” at Lincoln Center over the summer. In the tradition of “The Lion King,” the production featured men and women carrying puppets around, relying on lighting and the grace of the actors to create emotion and drama. I admit to being skeptical that “War Horse” would be as successful using this style, given the seriousness of topic: it is, after all, a tale about a young man’s journey into war to find the horse that was taken from him. A recipe for sentimentality, certainly, but a seemingly strange fit for such dramatics. Against all odds, however, it works to perfection—my eyes were wet for half of the performance, and the set design, sound effects, and light shows always seemed to dart in at exactly the right moment to evoke emotion without ever feeling cheesy. It was one of the better shows I’ve seen, but not because of the story itself: there’s very little originality in that. Rather, it took a tried-and-true formula and executed it beautifully, with flair, spark and creativity aplenty completely obscuring multiple shallow characters.
Steven Spielberg’s cinematic version, on the other hand, is basically what we’ve come to expect when Spielberg tackles a topic like this, and the result is one of his weakest films . A seemingly bottomless budget and Spielberg’s technical skills as a Director allows for plenty of beautiful shots: the cinematography and colors are lovely. That’s about where the praise ends, though. At nearly two-and-a-half hours, War Horse is extremely bloated, with John Williams’ score seemingly chiming in during every single scene. The treacle is unyielding, and that’s basically a kiss of death for a picture that’s working off a script with such potential for hokey melodrama. From the opening shot to the closing sequence, War Horse hammers you over the head with sap. Holiday moviegoers in the mood for a feel-good pick-me-up should get what they’re looking for, but from a critical perspective, War Horse has little to offer beyond a string of pretty shots and some passable performances.