Steven Spielberg fans are enjoying an embarrassment of riches at the movie theater these days.
The Oscar winner unleashed his preposterously entertaining mo-cap thrill ride The Adventures of Tintin on Dec. 21, only to follow it up with a Christmas Day release of the director’s touching, devastating yet ultimately uplifting War Horse. Those who track the Oscar races think both have a very good shot at competing at next year’s Academy Awards, with the latter considered to be a frontrunner in the Best Picture race by more than a handful of pundits.
Audiences certainly are responding to War Horse in kind. Spielberg’s adaptation of Nick Stafford’s Tony-winning stage play shot out of the gate with an estimated $7.5 million in Christmas Day receipts, putting it way ahead of box office tracking figures while setting the stage for what could be a very successful run (or gallop, given the subject at hand).
I wonder how many patrons were parents hoping to bring their kids to a family-friendly film on Christmas Day? I also wonder how many parents left disappointed?
Many might not realize that Stafford and Spielberg take their War Horse cues from a children’s novel that was penned by Michael Morpurgo and published in 1982. And like the movie and play, Morpurgo’s story follows a courageous horse named Joey who is sold to the British cavalry at the start of World War I, shipped to France, and pursued by his original owner – a pious farmhand – for years until they reunite.
War Horse has gone through several upgrades on its way from page to stage to screen, though, and the finished product isn’t as family friendly as you might imagine. So, let’s plow the field, snip through the barbed wire, create a recognizable whistle with our hands, and figure out when you can watch War Horse with your kids.
Red Flags: “Running away is all that they’ve got. And yet we’ve taught them opposite, running into the fray. War horse. War horse. What a strange beast you’ve become.”
Leading up to opening day, I received a handful of e-mails that basically read, “My son/daughter loves horses. Can I take them to see War Horse?”
My standard answer was, “Sure! Just leave once Joey, the horse, is drafted into the war.”
For the first 30 minutes, Spielberg’s making a family movie. Sentimental threads of The Black Stallion, National Velvet and Old Yeller weave through the fabric of War Horse as Spielberg blends broad and borderline silly humor (that goose!) with the tender story of a noble farmhand named Albert (Jeremy Irvine) and the undersized stallion his father (Peter Mullan) purchases to potentially save their land from a creditor (David Thewlis, sufficiently oily).
And their plan works. Just not quickly enough, though. Eventually, Albert’s dad must sell the horse to the British military at the onset of WWI to earn the cash that will save the family farm. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Albert’s separation from his beloved pet is draining, and it establishes the film’s new, more mature tone
Once the money changes hands, Spielberg’s movie changes. Joey’s miraculous journey transports him through the war-torn battlefields of Europe, and the director reaches into his Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan guidebooks to recreate the atrocities of war. You’ve seen Spielberg storming the beaches of Normandy and exploring the Nazi concentration camps. You know what he’s capable of, and some of that is on display through large chunks of War Horse.
What happens? Well, without tossing spoilers all over this column, we see soldiers we’ve come to care about killed in battle; young men fleeing the war effort slaughtered in cold blood (though the crime is obscured by the blade of a windmill); Albert, once in the war, is wounded; and horses are in grave danger, including a particularly cruel sequence involving barbed wire. History tells us horses were used for vile grunt work during WWI, and while Spielberg paints with his expectedly broad strokes, War Horse doesn’t shy away from that reality.
Morpurgo’s children’s book, which touched on these topics, becomes a decidedly mature feature in Spielberg’s hands, though Albert’s compassionate quest to reunite with his beloved Joey keeps War Horse grounded in the realm of a traditional boy-and-his-pet fable. And those elements deserve to be celebrated in our Green Lights section.
Green Lights: “Hello Joey. Where have you been, hey? Where in the world have you been?”
There are times when Spielberg’s content to simply set his dial on “Popcorn Thrills,” with no real desire to comment on anything socially or politically relevant. The Indiana Jones franchise, Jurassic Park (and its sequel), and Minority Report are the finest examples (though there are lessons to be learned in the director’s adaptations of Michael Crichton’s best sellers).
Yet when Spielberg sinks his teeth into epic melodrama with a foundation in historic fact, few can match his visual palette or his narrative scope. To a prestigious group that includes Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Empire of the Sun and Munich, we now add War Horse.
Film geeks will find plenty to appreciate in War Horse, a gorgeously constructed film with outstanding contributions from cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and composer John Williams. When Spielberg’s clicking on all cylinders, few directors can match his technical prowess while also burrowing to the heart of a sentimental story to push our buttons. (Some would argue he’s manipulating our emotions, but regardless, Spielberg gets his desired effect.)
Parents, however, will have to dig beneath the proficiency to unearth the themes that are worth exploring with your kids. Obviously, Albert’s connection to Joey – the unshakeable faith and unwavering dedication Albert feels for his animal – is noteworthy. That passion spreads as Joey acquires new owners over the course of Spielberg’s film, but the bond between Albert and Joey is the rail on which War Horse rides.
Yet, their journeys -- while pockmarked by moments of love and kindness -- are riddled with legitimate obstacles brought on by human conflict, so the heartwarming story of this remarkable creature is better suited for older children who, against our best intentions, have grown familiar with the horrors of battle and the pain that’s inflicted my military conflict. And so …
War Horse should be reserved for kids aged 12 and higher.
The MPAA got its relatively right when it bestowed the PG-13 rating for “intense sequences of war violence.” Spielberg’s enamored with the time period, and he doesn’t allow himself to soften the brutality of military conflict.
War Horse is a better film for that decision. Albert and Joey have to endure their own personal hells for us to truly appreciate their reunion. So kids who’ve experienced loss will understand the film's difficult lows and emotional highs better than a child seeking a genial, happy fairy tale about a boy and his pet.
If you’d like to read previous entries in the "When Can I Watch That With My Kids?" series, click right here. Some of the films covered: Star Wars, Back to the Future, The Goonies, Hugo, The Princess Bride, The Monster Squad and Elf, to name just a few.