Equine actors steal spotlight in larger-than-life 'War Horse'

Return with us now, once again, to those thrilling days of yesteryear -- as reflected on the silver screen.

In "Hugo," director Martin Scorsese focuses on, among other things, the dawn of moviemaking. "The Artist" (which, alas, doesn't open in Las Vegas until next month) takes place at the pivotal moment when silent pictures give way to talkies.

And in "War Horse," which gallops into theaters Sunday, director Steven Spielberg revisits the realm of the heart-tugging Hollywood epic -- a world as long-gone as the one depicted in the movie itself.

The second Spielberg release in five days (the animated "Adventures of Tintin" opened Wednesday), "War Horse" follows its equine protagonist from the peaceful English countryside to the hellish trenches of World War I.

Depicting that fateful journey gives Spielberg the chance to salute such past masters as John Ford and David Lean as he tries (and my, how he tries) to reconjure their cinematic magic.

Sometimes he succeeds. And sometimes his ambitious efforts offer an inescapable reminder that this particular cinematic train left the station decades ago -- and never returned.

Which is not to imply that "War Horse" is ever anything less than affecting, especially in the visual department. Once again, Spielberg and his Oscar-winning "Schindler's List"/"Saving Private Ryan" cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski , make an inspired team. (We'll get to that later.)

Affecting it may be, but "War Horse" also proves frustratingly affected at times, bogging down in the story's inherent sentimentality rather than soaring above it.

As a result, the movie provides a generous supply of eye-rolling, tear-jerking moments as we share the title character's arduous odyssey.

And, come to think of it, that's very old-school Hollywood, too.

When "War Horse" gets under way, there's no war -- but plenty of horses, still an integral part of British farm life.

Joey, however, is no plodding, cold-blooded farm plug.

He's a thoroughbred with a lively -- even rambunctious -- spirit. And hot-headed farmer Ted Narracott (actor-filmmaker Peter Mullan ) has no business buying such a horse at the local livestock auction. Except, of course, to foil his arrogant landlord (David Thewlis , alias "Harry Potter's" Remus Lupin), who's also got his eye on the sleek, fleet steed.

Ted's hardscrabble wife, Rose (Emily Watson), frustrated as usual by her husband's impractical, alcohol-fueled impulses, soldiers on with grim determination no matter what.

But their teenage son Albert (earnest, apple-cheeked Jeremy Irvine) has confidence in the horse he names Joey -- and in the unbreakable bond they develop.

Until crisis strikes: first a crop failure, then the outbreak of what comes to be known as the Great War.

That one-two punch prompts Ted to sell Joey to the British army so he can cover the family's debts. Albert, too young to enlist, may be distraught, but he's certain that he and Joey will reunite someday, some way.

Because "War Horse" -- based on Michael Morpurgo's novel, and Nick Stafford's subsequent stage adaptation, which features life-size equine puppets -- follows Joey's fate, not Albert's, the cast of human characters shifts along with Joey's fortunes.

From a dashing British cavalry officer (Tom Hiddleston, "Thor's" wicked Loki -- and "Midnight in Paris' " jaunty F. Scott Fitzgerald) who assures Albert he'll take good care of Joey to brothers ("The Reader's" David Kross , Leonard Carow ) reluctantly serving in battle to a world-weary French farmer ("A Prophet's" Niels Arestrup ) and his sassy granddaughter (Celine Buckens), Joey encounters a few compassionate humans who treat him as something more than a disposable beast of burden.

Most of the time, however, Joey's just like the people who surround him: expendable cannon fodder, struggling to maintain some semblance of spirit amid the senseless, increasingly mechanical slaughter.

Screenwriters Lee Hall ("Billy Elliott") and Richard Curtis ("Four Weddings and a Funeral," "Love Actually") smoothly shift locales, from pastoral pasture to the bomb-cratered lunar landscape of No Man's Land. And of course they touch on familiar Spielberg themes, especially the one about a boy's love for a nonhuman threatened by unfeeling grown-ups. ("E.T.," phone Joey.)

But "War Horse" ultimately, inevitably suffers the same fate as its equine protagonist: precious little time to get acquainted with the movie's humans.

They're sketched in such broad detail that it's up to the actors to provide whatever depth and detail "War Horse" musters on a human scale. (Naturally, some of them prove better at this than others, as demonstrated by Mullan's gruff anguish, Watson's quiet strength, Arestrup's grizzled grace and Hiddleston's crisp, if misplaced confidence.)

Not that it matters much in a movie where the equine actors steal the spotlight. (More than 10 horses appear as Joey, including the same horse that played "Secretariat's" starring role.)

Besides, "War Horse" is unquestionably a big-picture movie. And just in case you don't get that big picture, John Williams' booming, wraparound score is there, always, to underline the movie's over-the-top emotional approach.

Visually, Spielberg and Kaminski deploy everything-old-is-new-again imagery -- and slow, inexorable tracking shots -- that recall such 20th-century classics as Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia," Ford's U.S. Cavalry Westerns and Stanley Kubrick's own World War I-is-hell drama, "Paths of Glory." Some of the early home-on-the-farm sequences bear more than a passing resemblance to William Wyler's "Friendly Persuasion" -- and "War Horse's" overall horse's-eye view echoes French director Robert Bresson's simple, yet spiritually resplendent, "Au Hasard , Balthazar ," about a mistreated donkey's lifetime of trials.

If "War Horse" inspires any contemporary audience members to check out such superior inspirations, it's performed an invaluable service.

And even if not, it remains a noble attempt -- if not exactly an unqualified triumph -- to deliver the kind of good old-fashioned movie designed to bring kids, parents and grandparents together for a good old-fashioned, larger-than-life time at the movies.

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.