"War Horse’’ is the best film of the year. The year, unfortunately, is 1942.
Steven Spielberg’s “serious’’ movie of the season - the director has doubled down again, with “The Adventures of Tintin’’ representing his more commercial impulses - is a work of full-throated Hollywood classicism that looks back to the craftsmanship and sentimentality of John Ford and other legends of the studio era. There’s a lot of this going around at the moment. “The Artist’’ and Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo’’ each bow low to the movies of yesteryear, searching for solace in a hot-wired culture where we can hardly hear ourselves think.
Always the most audience-conscious of his generation’s geniuses, Spielberg takes a different approach. Drawn from Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 young adult novel about a boy, his steed, and the Great War that tears them from each other (with additional elements taken from the 2007 stage adaptation currently running on Broadway), “War Horse’’ is a sweeping epic about the politics that separate people and the animals that bring them together. The film is self-consciously old-school, to the point where you can feel Spielberg treating us like children, just as the old studio heads used to.
The boy in this love story, Albert Narracott of Devonshire, is played by a newcomer named Jeremy Irvine, who looks freshly hatched and astounded to be here. The son of a tenant farmer, Albert falls for Joey before the foal has barely stood up, and his crush deepens when the old man (Peter Mullan) buys the horse at auction for far more than he can afford. “There are big days and there are small days,’’ the father growls, and if Spielberg has ever made a movie about a small day, it’s safely in a can in his basement.
The first act of “War Horse’’ is its most nakedly nostalgic, with camera shots evoking the long, glowing corridors and side-lit doorways of Ford’s “How Green Was My Valley’’ and “The Quiet Man.’’ Silhouettes at sunset, Albert’s sainted mother (Emily Watson), a girl passing through with the red Technicolor hair of Maureen O’Hara - this is the work of an obsessive movie-lover recombining the pieces of his passions. Yet the story line hardly carries the same urgency. A nasty landlord (David Thewlis) threatens to take the horse away and evict the family from their land unless Albert can teach his thoroughbred to plow a rocky field; the sequence is beautifully filmed and so true to the clichés of inspirational moviemaking that you can predict individual shots.
The visuals and the narrative get a lift when Joey goes off to World War I, sold by Albert’s father to an upper-class captain (Tom Hiddleston) who promises to care for him. (“I will find you,’’ the boy cries out to his horse, briefly channeling Daniel Day-Lewis in “The Last of the Mohicans.’’) This leads to a harrowing battle sequence that explains with startling visual poetry why 19th-century notions of gentlemanly warfare were useless in the face of 20th-century machine guns.
Spielberg has taken pains to say that “War Horse’’ is not a war movie, and in a sense he’s right: The climactic Battle of the Somme, a trench-war variation on the D-Day of “Saving Private Ryan,’’ is a case of a great director repeating himself. It’s the survivors, two-legged and four, who matter here. Joey is passed from owner to owner, each of whom is a different story of battlefront suffering. Some of these plotlines register more than others. A little girl (Celine Buckens) and her crusty grandpa (Niels Arestrup) could come out of a Disney TV film from the early 1960s, but the two young German brothers (Leonard Carow and David Kross) who run away with Joey from their unit are bluntly moving portraits of youth wasted.
Spielberg’s hardest challenge, obviously, is getting us to care about the horse. The movies have always come up against this wall - the fact that these noble, beautiful animals don’t seem to register many emotions beyond what we project onto them. “National Velvet’’ was more about Velvet than Pie; “Seabiscuit’’ was about the three humans closest to the title steed; and so on. Spielberg has Joey (played by a number of horses but mostly one named Finder) “volunteering’’ for missions by putting his neck into collars, or racing to the front lines to replace a faltering fellow warhorse, and unless you’re very young or addled by equines, these moments will feel cloying and false. (There’s even a horse deathbed scene that would make Louis B. Mayer himself weep with shame.)
The movie works as it means to when it just lets Joey be Joey. It’s worth sitting through all of “War Horse’’ for the sequence in which the exhausted animal, crucified by barbed wire in the middle of no man’s land, becomes the object of concern - and then the cause of a temporary peace - between the warring British and Germans. The image of the horse shrouded in mist in a desolate landscape, silent amid a tangle of metal, is a vision worthy of Herzog, but it’s also pure Spielberg: iconic, elemental, cinematic.
Then we’re back to High Hollywood corn, expertly roasted, including a sunset homecoming downloaded directly from “Gone With the Wind.’’ Spielberg’s A-team - cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, editor Michael Kahn, composer John Williams (sampling Ralph Vaughan Williams at his most lyrical) - lifts it all to the peak of craftsmanship, but what’s missing is the sense of a born filmmaker personally engaged by the story he’s telling. “War Horse’’ is as impressive as coasting gets, but it’s coasting all the same.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.