Based on the 1982 novel by Michael Morpurgo and the 2007 stage play by Nick Stafford, Steven Spielberg's take on this tale features humor, tragedy, drama, and action all in step with good pacing.
The story follows a thoroughbred horse's journey through WWI as he frequently changes hands, sometimes for the better, and others for the worst. As the cruelty of the war is seen through the horse's eyes, we're fortunate to find that it's always in the company of a horse lover despite the bleak surroundings. Thus there is no real plot. It's just one complete episode after another, and it wasn't until a random scene revisiting his first owner that I knew he'd eventually make his way back to him. For let's face it, in such a narrative, there really is no reason to reflect on past characters if they won't be revisited by our main protagonist, which in this case is the thoroughbred Joey. The only reason I didn't just assume that was because the outcome of each story is rather too tragic to even think that something happy was around the corner.
This film comes with all of Spielberg's trademarks for historical dramas. The costumes, effects, and production design are all top notch. The ensemble cast featuring Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Peter Mullan, Tom Hiddleston, and Niels Arestrup to name a few are perfect for their roles. John Williams' music of course never disappoints, and neither does Michael Kahn's spot on editing. So all the technicals were perfect enough. This isn't really what makes it notable as a Spielberg piece--as I generally can't tell if a film is his or not unlike other visionaries--rather it's that everything balances out. All his historical dramas do. Seldom do the viewers get sidetracked by something unimportant to the overall story, as all of these elements blended together make a true ensemble in cast, story, and effects wizardry. Everything has its moment. For the effects it would have to be Joey's stampede through No Man's Land in search of a way out, and for the cast it would have to be the prolonged prelude of training Joey and the grandfather's quiet, yet solemn point about the cost of war. Those two segments in particular really stand out among the rest. So overall, keeping everything in balance is really Spielberg's trademark for these films. Nothing trumps anything else. It's all one synchronized dance of sorts.
There is little else to be said of the film apart from just how watchable it is. I never got bored by any of the stories, nor thought one dragged on for too long, or ended too early. The majestic nature of Joey is captivating from start to finish. He really becomes a character in the film, and not just because he's the main protagonist. No, Joey really has a personality. You can recognize love, hate, sympathy, agitation, frustration, and depression. Not FOR the horse, but FROM the horse. That's really what counts here. If we were just staring into a glassy eyed four legged beast then everything would just crumble. So the ensemble of horses most certainly used to play Joey were properly trained and well selected for the film.
On that note, the whole moral of it is drawn into question; the taming of horses for meager tasks we're too lazy to perform ourselves, like not building a motor to pull a cannon up a hill in a war debuting industrial war machines, yet building them so generals can ride around the camp rather than walk. Then shooting the horses dead when it can't pull anymore rather than just letting them flee camp, or chasing them out, for not all horses tire out from severe irreversible injury. You can't help feel sympathy for Joey throughout, and as a result, you're prone to think of these things without really wanting too. Spielberg throws them in your face, especially when Joey's in the hands of the French. Janusz Kaminski makes sure to fill the frame with pain and misery so there's no happy place to divert your attention. And so, the moral of the story is half forced on you, as it's very "in your face," but isn't spelled out for you. No corny exchange of dialogue to get the point across will be found here.
So overall, if you're looking for something original for a change, which is peaceful through its majestic narrative, and hasn't been done to death already, then I highly recommend this film over most of last year's new additions. Horse lover or not, you'll love this movie.