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“War Horse”

Steven Spielberg is doing a one-two punch in 2011 much as he did in 1993. Then, it was “Jurassic Park” and “Schindler’s List,” obviously two very different films.
Now, it’s “The Adventures of Tintin” and “War Horse.” “Tintin” is the performance-capture 3D adventure. “War Horse,” which opens Christmas Day, is summed up by its name.

Based on a 1982 novel turned successful stage play, “War Horse” is set during World War I and focuses on the fortunes of a horse named Joey.

Joey is raised and taught a few lessons by Albert (Jeremy Irvine) in Devon, England, before war erupts.

Joey, through a series of events, is put into the cavalry service and sent to the lines in France. At their separation, young Albert declares he’ll see Joey again one day.

So begins Joey’s journey, and we leave the picturesque scenery of Devon behind for charming French countrysides, muddy battlefields and gray trenches.

We meet the people who cross Joey’s path and either teach him new tricks or discover the old ones he already knew, courtesy of Albert.

“War Horse” is not one of Spielberg’s better films. The storytelling lacks a subtlety that would have made it more enjoyable. On too many occasions, it plays like melodrama (perhaps a vestige of its stage treatment).

Of course, because it’s Spielberg and his longtime collaborators, the craft is at least reliably competent, from cinematography (Janusz Kaminski) through music (John Williams) to production design (Rick Carter).

But the real weak link here is the writing (Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, the latter known for British classics like “Bridget Jones” and “Love Actually”).

That’s not to say the story itself is lacking; it isn’t. But the main character is really Joey, not Albert, and what develops feels more like a string of sometimes meandering sequences than a full-on narrative.

In the end, the translation to a script for Spielberg has me caught in no man’s land.

Speaking of no man’s land – the area between combatant lines – one of the film’s best sequences is set there, as Joey becomes entangled in barbed wire between English and German trenches. What ensues offers comic relief – if also a further invitation to suspend disbelief.

“War Horse” is ultimately a sweet film, but one punctuated by a few war sequences – enough to merit a PG-13 rating.

The violence here doesn’t even begin to approach “Saving Private Ryan,” but the thunderous hooves of cavalry advances mark some of the best sights and sounds of “War Horse.”

To be fair, any screen bearing Spielberg’s name brings with it enormously high expectations; “War Horse,” sadly, doesn’t meet them.

But for those of us whose cinema life has practically been defined by his oeuvre, there’s always a certain delight in knowing who’s behind the frame.

CliffVaughn is managing editor and media producer for EthicsDaily.com.

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of war violence.

Director: Steven Spielberg

Writers: Lee Hall and Richard Curtis (based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo)

Cast: Jeremy Irvine: Albert; Emily Watson: Rose Narracott; Peter Mullan: Ted Narracott; David Thewlis: Lyons.

The movie’s official website is here.