Spoiler Alert: The following review may contain crucial elements to the movie.
Steven Spielberg's "War Horse" is a movie that wants to gallop but can't take it past a trot.
On paper, it's a film that should find the famed director confidently behind the reins and riding to critical acclaim. But in reality, "War Horse" shows Spielberg is uncertain sitting in the director's saddle this time.
The film tells the story of Albert Narracott (played by Jeremy Irvine), a youth growing up in WWI-era England. Ensnared by his family's poverty, our hero finds happiness caring for Joey, a horse that joins his parent's farm. This joy is snatched away when war hostilities break out, conscripting Joey into Britain's cavalry and forcing Albert to enlist and chase after him.
It takes off at a tedious pace, focusing too much on the Narracotts' trials and Albert's attempts at training his new pet. Joey joins the Narracott household when Albert's father Ted (played by Peter Mullan) drunkenly buys the "fancy" horse rather than a bigger, stronger breed necessary for plowing the season's turnip harvest. Determined to keep the animal, Albert convinces him and his mother Rose (played by Emily Watson) to let him try farming with Joey anyways.
What follows is beautiful but ultimately boring. For nearly an hour, Albert and Joey bond over farm work as shots of Britain's pastoral country creep by. It's certainly worth looking at, but there's little drama even after the Narracotts' landlord demands back rent on threat of eviction. The family escapes eviction, but England goes to war with Germany, and the film's entire course is changed.
The real conflict finally occurs when Albert and Joey's idyllic bond is forcefully broken when Joey is ordered to serve for King and Country as the titular "War Horse." He's soon ridden into battle by a variety of men, and the movie takes an interesting turn by examining the rise of mechanical warfare through a creature made completely irrelevant by it. Joey jumps through machine gun spray, tramples over armored tanks, and races through ravaged earth devoid of life. Through it all, viewers witness the grim reality of conflict as industry. It's only when people become efficient at killing, the movie seemingly says, that they realize how inhuman it is.
Sadly, the gap between the film's two atmospheres is too wide. Its first half feels false when paired with the second's "Saving Private Ryan" style, and it's also too slow for its climatic action sequences. The end result is two movies instead of one, neither of which feels comfortable or complete on its own.
Even worse, for a movie that accurately captures war's terror, it also rejects realism one too many times. Several scenes suffer from improbable coincidences that will have many shaking their heads in disbelief. It's as if Spielberg and his cast couldn't decide to create a war epic or a family film for the holidays. The resulting indecision hurts the film, as the ending isn't the one that seems expected or deserved.
"War Horse" starts slow and crosses the finish line well behind similar films. It's the movie equivalent of choosing between a lucky horseshoe and a head-splitting hand grenade. At day's end, viewers should only pony up the cash for this if they're certain it'll pull them in. Anything else is beating a dead horse.
"War Horse" debuts in theaters everywhere Dec. 25.