John P. McCarthy Reviews 'War Horse'

Fans of Michael Morpurgo's popular book War Horse, and the successful Broadway adaptation of the same name, have been wondering how (or whether) director Steven Spielberg would translate the unique prose of the book (it's narrated by a horse) and the vision of the play (the horses are played by puppets) into a film adaptation.  John P. McCarthy, in an online Culture piece, looks at how, and how sucessfully, Mr. Spielberg has handled the transition and translation:

Michael Morpurgo’s young adult novel “War Horse” is narrated by the title character, Joey, a comely and exuberant half-thoroughbred. In the award-winning play based on the book, puppets are used to represent equines—to striking effect. The challenge facing anyone adapting Morpurgo’s story for the screen is whether and how to capture Joey’s point of view and thus communicate the “inner life” of horses to a plausible and dramatically constructive degree.

A short list of filmmakers best able to clear this hurdle would include Steven Spielberg, a director who made his mark by getting millions of moviegoers to sympathize with a man-eating Great White shark and who many times since has shown he can bridge the epic and intimate sides of a narrative as effectively as anyone in the history of popular cinema.

With all due respect to Spielberg and the talents of the stallion portraying Joey—plus the entire equine ensemble—“War Horse” does not represent the animals’ point of view in any sort of memorable way. In fact, the problem is sidestepped.

Staying within the bounds of realism, Spielberg and company decline to adopt the horse’s vantage point or give Joey any kind of “voice” using technical wizardry (although, for safety’s sake, animatronics and computer-generated effects are employed during the most perilous sequences). Choosing not to “get inside” the animals does not doom the picture. The horses on screen are expressive. Moreover, anything “Mr. Ed”-like would seem ridiculous in this context.

No, the problem is structural. The absence of a guiding, unifying viewpoint contributes to the movie’s diffuseness. Lacking a full-blown protagonist and consequently a textured relationship between man and animal, “War Horse” feels lukewarm and abstract. The viewing experience is akin to being deposited in an immediately recognizable and yet unfamiliar landscape somewhere between sweeping wartime adventure and quiet interspecies drama.

Still, “War Horse” offers a relatively understated anti-war message, a historical lesson concerning the role of horses in World War I and an optimistic take on humankind. It’s salubrious enough to warrant a Christmas-day release aimed at a broad swathe of moviegoers.

Advertisement

Read the rest of the review here.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

People and cheered Pope Francis everywhere he went on this last day of his visit.
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 21, 2018
A boy presents a hat to Pope Francis upon his arrival at the international airport in Trujillo, Peru, Jan. 20. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
“Just as the apostles faced the storm on the sea, you had to face the brunt of ‘El Niño costero.’”
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 20, 2018
Pope Francis greets the crowd before celebrating Mass at the Maquehue Airport near Temuco, Chile, Jan. 17. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
“Pope Francis’ statements...were a source of great pain for survivors of sexual abuse,” Cardinal O’Malley said in a statement released Jan. 20.
Michael J. O’LoughlinJanuary 20, 2018
 Pope Francis and Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski stand outside the presidential palace in Lima, Peru, Jan.19.(CNS photo//Mariana Bazo, Reuters)
“The degradation of the environment...cannot be separated from the moral degradation of our communities.”
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 20, 2018