'War Horse' review: A fairy tale goes to battle, and nobody wins

'War Horse'

"I thank you again for not biting my arm off."

*1/2 (out of four)

“War Horse” deserves every award it receives for Best Horse Actor of the year. Otherwise, this long, broadly sentimental drama from Steven Spielberg plays like the pretty movie you feel you’re supposed to like but know, deep down, it bored and totally bugged you.

Back in the days, apparently before horses pooped, no one thinks Joey the horse can even properly plow a field. Shows what those early 20th century English folk know: Turns out Joey’s an indestructible horse of nature, who laughs (not literally) in the face of bullets, barbed wire and countless changes of ownership. So as Joey’s sold into WWI battle and passed from soldier to soldier to cute little girl to soldier, “War Horse” follows every human who falls for Joey’s beloved horsiness—he displays nothing special in the personality department—and looks down on any jerk who doesn’t think horses are the greatest ever.

We already know Spielberg (“Saving Private Ryan”) can nail a war film, and one late battle sequence astounds in ways that the rest of “War Horse” never does. Based on a children’s novel later adapted for the stage, the story reduces characters to saints and devils, most absurdly in a scene in which a struggling horse brings astoundingly amiable enemies together.

The script by Richard Curtis and Lee Hall gives little depth to young Albert (Jeremy Irvine), who gawks at and raises Joey, or the other folks who briefly come into contact with him. Shouldn’t we follow Albert’s efforts to find his pet, not what’s going on with the horse, who (thankfully) can’t talk or understand what’s happening?

Rather than explore the agonies of war and resilience of the bond between humans and animals and humans and humans, “War Horse” creates a twinkly, violent legend that sometimes feels like “Inglourious Softies.” So hollow and misguided is the film’s combination of fairy tale and war, in fact, you expect “War Horse” to close by telling us, “Joey was a hero to the English and the Germans alike, and he went on to kill three Nazi generals.”

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Fridays at 7:30 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com. @mattpais

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