WASHINGTON – The Oscar race is on, “The Artist” and “The Descendants” are neck and neck, “Hugo” is going to the inside, and “War Horse” is struggling to get out of the starting gate.
Don’t get me wrong. Steven Spielberg’s latest effort is a fine film. It’s just a pony among Best Picture stallions, and far from his own Top 10, where “Schindler’s List” beats “Jaws” in a telephoto finish.
Based on a book by Michael Morpurgo, the film tells the tale of a miracle horse, from its days plowing English farmland for teenage owner Albert (Jeremy Irvine), to riding calvary missions in World War I.
If the plot sounds like a mix of “National Velvet” (1944) and “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930), its presentation will remind you of “The Red Violin,” following an item as it’s passed from character to character. Rather than following a violin, we follow the title horse as it’s passed from owner to owner, including the most horrific owner imaginable — World War I.
The trailer tricks us into thinking the film is about a boy and his horse, but we soon realize the main character is the horse itself. Spielberg expresses this visually in an “extreme close-up” where a little girl reflects in the horse’s eye, proving the film is from the animal’s perspective.
The eyes of moviegoers will feature gorgeous reflections. In addition to Oscar-nominated art design, cinematographer Janusz Kamiski paints silhouetted characters against deep orange skies, recreating compositions that won him the Oscar with Spielberg for “Saving Private Ryan” (1998).
Accompanying the images is John Williams’ music, his 46th Oscar-nominated score and his second this year, along with “The Adventures of Tintin” (2011). More importantly, we get Oscar-nominated work in both sound mixing and sound editing — the film’s best shot at winning. The soundtrack is layered with life’s most beautiful sound — that of galloping hooves — best on display in a genius piece of parallel action, cutting from horses riding screen left, to machine guns firing screen right.
Still, the tone is a little too Disney-fied — Spielberg’s Achilles Heel — and the whole thing runs a little too long. As Act II of the script gallops on, the film’s merits hang in the balance. Thankfully, it all comes together in the last half hour. I won’t spoil the ending, but there’s a wonderful scene involving the horse and two staples of World War I — barbed wire and trench warfare.
In a year of nine Best Picture nominees, I suppose it’s fair for “War Horse” to be nominated. However, if this were a year of five nominees, it wouldn’t make the cut. The public gives it a 7.3 on IMDb. The critics give it a 76 percent on rottentomatoes. Calling it from both sides of The Film Spectrum, I give “War Horse” 3 out of 4 stars.
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Read more from WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley by clicking “Fraley on Film” under the “Living” tab above, and check out his film appreciation blog, The Film Spectrum.