Thursday, January 5, 2012

Film Review | War Horse & The Adventures of Tintin

War and Oats

by Thomas Delapa

Less is often more in Hollywood movies, but don’t tell that to screen general Steven Spielberg, director of two, count ‘em two, major holiday releases. In the case of War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin, Spielberg had an uphill battle before the first shots.

According to the Associated Press, Hollywood’s 2011 box-office numbers will hit a low not seen since 1995. With no blockbusters on the scale of Avatar or The Lord of the Rings, few summer smashes and most A-list directors taking a holiday hiatus, election-year adult audiences ought to be asking themselves, “Where’s the beef?” Instead of hefty films with bite, Spielberg and fellow auteur-in-arms Martin Scorsese (in Hugo) served up candy-coated corn.

Based on a children’s novel by British author Michael Morpurgo that grew into a hit play, War Horse is a handsome but skittish crossbreed between Black Beauty and All Quiet on the Western Front. It’s a boy-and-his-horse story about young Albert (Jeremy Irvine) and Joey, a spirited colt who marches from the green fields of Devon to the bloody World War I battlefields of France. Forcibly separated from Albert, Joey passes from one owner to the next, finally arriving in the beastly trench warfare of the Somme.

Perched in the no-man’s-land between kiddie-lit and anti-war tract, Spielberg’s dramatic terrain is tricky, and he never quite finds his footing. As a plow horse, Joey saves the family farm from a mean landlord (David Thewlis), the melodramatic load lightened by Disneyfied comic touches and John Williams’ mickey-mousing score. Though Spielberg aims at making a heartwarming family film, War Horse only pulses during the few battle scenes, led by a David Lean-like British cavalry charge, bayonets drawn, against the Germans.

In the novel, Joey himself narrates his story as he’s yanked along under the reins of a string of good and bad owners. But with that voice gone on the screen, we’re left with the anthropomorphized sight of woeful, mistreated Joey, a mute Mr. Ed. Except for a kindly captain (Tom Hiddleston) who drafts the horse as his mount, Joey’s human co-stars have even less to say, surrendering to a script that comes up lame in the backstretch.

Whether affixed with bumper stickers that say War Is Hell or Be Kind To Animals, War Horse plods through a well-trod turf. Throughout Joey’s journey, we watch his human handlers making and breaking promises to each other and him, resulting in separation, loss, and death. The nadir of the fable is a mawkish vignette that drops Joey into the arms of a French farmer’s sugar-sweet granddaughter who seems airlifted in from a 1930s Deanna Durbin movie.

By the time the climax is dragged in, the battle for the audience’s minds, if not their hearts, is over. In the thick of a battle between the British and Germans at the Somme, Joey becomes the catalyst for the most improbable wartime plot turn since McHale joined the Navy.

For the bottom-half of his 2011 double feature, Spielberg drafted the Eurocentric Tintin comic-book series written by Belgian author Hergé. Like Scorsese in Hugo, Spielberg takes his first flying, in-your-lap leap into the world of 3-D fantasy, enhanced with motion-capture visual effects. If War Horse might claim partial victory on looks and animal magnetism, the retro charm of Tintin is conspicuously missing in action. For all the millions spent on this production, it’s hard to picture how anyone could generate such a generically lackluster teen hero. Only HAL 9000 might warm up to Tintin, a carrot-topped boy journalist who stumbles into a mysterious plot thick with thieves, treasure and ships in bottles.

Despite his G-rated retorts ("Great snakes!"), this kid also bizarrely packs a handgun, setting off a slew of frenetic chases and shootouts befitting a low-caliber action movie. For a director who went so far as to digitally delete the guns in his E.T. re-release, Spielberg seems to have sailed off into a weird new dimension, and a shallow one at that.



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