Hot on the heels of Tintin, this pleasant and sentimental drama adapted from the novel by Michael Morpurgo is Spielberg's latest attempt to nab himself a third best director Oscar.
It's the sort of sweeping, handsome, old fashioned family adventure yarn that Sunday afternoons were made for, and begins with young Albert (Jeremy Irvine) witnessing the birth of a horse on the neighbouring West Country farm to his own.
Albert grows up with the horse always nearby, until his father, Ted (Peter Mullan) buys it, even though they can't afford it and don't really need it. It can't plough his field like a proper workhorse, and with debts mounting, the landowner (David Thewlis) threatens to take the farm from him.
Though the horse is a skittish unbroken colt, Albert befriends and trains him, naming him Joey and turning him into a strong and brave animal. This represents quite a chunk of the opening, so it is a long time coming before we get to the real meat of the story. What we've seen is green and lush, full of richly designed sets and all very cosy and nice.
But the title promises war, and war it is. It is 1914 and Ted is forced to sell the horse to an army captain (Tom Hiddleston) to ensure they're able to keep the farm, and it's off to the fields of France for Joey.
Spielberg, of course, knows better than almost anyone how to stage an action scene, and an epic first battle demonstrates just how good he is, as Hiddleston and his cavalry comrades make a charge that, though bloodless, is filled with poignant imagery of the merciless ferocity of war. But that only leads to something of a lull in the middle, as Joey changes hands through a succession of owners, an unsatisfactory way to drive a storyline. Some characters get little more than a couple of minutes, making it difficult when we're not sticking around with any of them long enough to form an investment.
A pair of young German soldiers get especially short shrift, before Joey ends up at a French farm with an old man and his granddaughter. The opposite crops up here, with far too much time spent on them and their uninvolving lives.
Most problematically, though Joey certainly has personality, it is a big ask to follow a horse's fortunes for an entire movie. In addition Albert is fairly bland, so it's left to the Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Emily Watson as Albert's mother to inject flavour. Some of the minor players do better than others in the brief time they're given, though it was a poor decision to have foreign actors speaking to each other in English.
Yet every now and then it comes alive, with a few wonderfully affecting episodes to make the movie memorable, in particular a sequence in the trenches, as a British and German soldier debate amicably over which of them should get Joey.
Albert meanwhile is back home on the farm with no idea if his horse is still alive, but he will be going to war himself soon enough.
Some of the scrapes Joey gets into are executed with tremendous style and confidence, often augmented by what can only be CGI, though you'd never know it, so seamless are the effects. On a technical level it is quite marvellous. John Williams provides one of the finest scores he's written for Spielberg since the 80s, and the cinematography must surely be an Oscar winner.
But when all's said and done, this is little more than a series of bitty diversions about the adventures of a horse and as such, for all its grandeur, it's just somehow lacking as a piece of convincing narrative.
Running time: 146 mins
WAR HORSE (12A) Sentimental drama is lush and technically
impressive, but for all its grandeur, it's lacking as a convincing narrative
SEE IT IF YOU LIKED:
Black Beauty; Seabiscuit;