Steven Spielberg is no novice when it comes to presenting moviegoers with the horrors of war, whether it's the muted screams of Schindler's List, the frontline carnage of Saving Private Ryan or even the knotty retaliations of Munich. While all those films deservedly earned R ratings, don't be fooled into thinking the PG-13 War Horse takes a softer approach to the subject at hand - with one specific scene, Spielberg establishes that his World War I epic, like some of the platoons marching through it, won't take any prisoners.
Before that sequence arrives, we're introduced to the majestic title animal, a horse (named Joey) who bonds with youthful farmhand Albert (Jeremy Irvine) before being sold to the British army. A sensitive captain (Tom Hiddleston) promises Albert that he'll take good care of Joey, but the horse doesn't remain in the officer's hands; instead, Joey finds himself passing between soldiers and civilians, between Brits and Germans, between kindly souls and abusive monsters. A young girl offers him a home; a German officer plans to work him until he drops dead; soldiers from each side team up to save him. And so it goes.
Based on the smash stage hit, War Horse has been opened up in breathtaking fashion for the screen, vibrantly bringing each vignette to life and allowing them to collectively address how war diminishes not just humankind but irrevocably destroys surrounding environs. War Horse is a movie of rage, but it's also one of empathy and understanding - it's to Spielberg's credit that he knows the storyline is emotionally wrenching enough that he doesn't need to manipulate tears out of anyone (believe you me, many viewers won't need any coaxing to reach for those hankies at the appropriate moments).
Only with the final shot selections does the director succumb to the sort of artistic grandstanding that's sometimes in his nature, but these screensaver images hardly negate the power and the fury of the hard-charging movie that precedes them.
WE BOUGHT A ZOO
While the concept of dotting the i's and crossing the t's is a wonderful one to pass along to small children just learning how to write, it earns Cameron Crowe a failing grade for rigidly applying it to We Bought a Zoo, a film whose fussiness about every single detail results in audience members not having the luxury to think or feel for themselves.
Based on a true story, this stars Matt Damon as Benjamin Mee, a recent widower who decides, in cornpone Green Acres fashion, to quit city life and move into a country home. As the new owner, he's required to take care of the failing zoo on the expansive property, so he relies on a motley crew of staffers to show him the ropes and bring him up to speed. Eventually, he falls for the lead zookeeper (Kevin James - whoops, wrong movie; Scarlett Johansson), his surly teenage son (Colin Ford) falls for a zoo employee (Elle Fanning), and his demographically-engineered-for-maximum-audience-awws daughter (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) falls for the estate's peacocks.
Watching this movie, it's hard to believe Crowe once helmed such finely crafted pictures as Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous and the underrated Vanilla Sky. As both director and co-writer (with Aline Brosh McKenna), he stumbles right at the start, when he fails to immediately establish essential information regarding the zoo (its parameters, the types of animals it houses, etc.). Instead, he's too busy working overtime to make sure we're visually and emotionally led by the hand so we don't miss anything. If Benjamin says something idiotic, there's a monkey ready to smack his own forehead in exasperation. If Benjamin fondly recalls his dearly departed wife, she's ready to appear in ethereal form. Clearly, Crowe doesn't trust viewers to make it from Point A to Point B without stumbling or getting lost.
Damon and Johansson are reliable as always, and Thomas Haden Church contributes a few chuckles as Benjamin's skeptical brother. But the zoo crew, meant to be quirky, is merely tiresome, the so-called villains (a smarmy inspector, a backstabbing accountant) are laughably manufactured, and the animals are rarely shown in all their glory. But hey, at least they're not burdened with the gift of gab.