This year, many filmmakers have looked fondly to the past for inspiration. Martin Scorsese celebrated the birth of cinema in Hugo; Michel Hazanavicius paid tribute to the transition from the silents to the talkies in The Artist; Nicolas Winding Refn even claims to have paid an oblique homage to the '80s oeuvre of Molly Ringwald in Drive.
Not to be left out, Steven Spielberg's War Horse harks back to an old-fashioned mode of filmmaking, too -- the sweeping, romantic Hollywood epic. That results in some classically picturesque moments, including a gorgeously constructed visual quote of Gone with the Wind in the movie's closing seconds, but more often the director winds up channeling live-action Disney films of the '50s and '60s.
Understandable impulse: The story of War Horse, first a children's book and then a hit on Broadway and West End stages, has the heartstring-tugging contours of those mid-century Disney family adventures, which often centered around beloved and extraordinary animals -- Old Yeller, or the homeward-bound pets of The Incredible Journey -- and plucky kids like Pollyanna and Toby Tyler.
This tale features Joey, a strong and intelligent stallion born amid the rolling and rocky picture-book hills of southwestern England, and Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine), who forms an unbreakable bond with Joey from the moment he first lays eyes on him as a willful colt.
Much like Anna Sewell's classic novel Black Beauty, War Horse is essentially told from Joey's perspective as he is transferred from owner to owner: He begins as beloved companion to Albert and unlikely workhorse on the Narracott farm, then makes his way to the fields of battle in France as a cavalry horse in World War I and then to the care of a kindly old French jelly-maker and his granddaughter. Eventually, he will see some truly horrific service back in the trenches, this time on the German side.
The tonal shifts between those segments can be rather jarring. The first portion of the film, on those Devonshire hillsides, is the most evocative of classic Disney. It even includes an anthropomorphized goose who comically harasses unwanted guests on the Narracott farm. Not least among these is the evil landlord (David Thewlis, playing so close to type that he may as well be twirling a mustache) who threatens to take the farm away from Albert's family when they fall on hard times -- hard times that are actually the result of Albert's alcoholic, impulsive father's spending too much to purchase Joey.
The kid-friendly storybook tone, heightened by weirdly artificial lighting choices from longtime Spielberg cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, feels particularly discordant given the dark and surprisingly violent turn the film takes once Joey makes good on the film's title. The battlefield sections are brilliantly staged and by far the highlight of the movie. Spielberg knows how to film warfare better than any other living director, and there are images here -- troops moving through breeze-swayed grasses on their way to a sneak attack, a firing squad's target just blocked out by the blades of a spinning windmill at the moment the triggers are pulled -- that rank among his most unforgettable.
Unfortunately, they're couched in a film that feels of multiple minds about what it wants to be. It's not that a film can't be lighthearted family fare, a gritty war epic and a weepie all at once; the problem is that here, those elements feel strictly compartmentalized -- and calculated.
Sure, War Horse is bound to elicit some tears. But it's like those holiday coffee commercials with the long-absent child returning for a surprise Christmas-morning visit, with Spielberg taking the easy road to emotional response: Insert tab A into slot B and hand out hankies at the door. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit www.npr.org.