There is a movie called AirBud, about a dog who can play basketball. Of course, I don’t need to tell you that, you’re probably already a fan. I mean, who could resist a tale about a young boy who adopts a homeless puppy, learns the dog is a wiz at human athletics, then teams up with the pup to win his high school’s basketball championship? It’s charming, it’s dramatic, it’s a story we can all relate to. In fact, there’s an entire series of Air Bud films: Air Bud 2, Golden Receiver (football pun); Air Bud 3, World Pup (soccer pun); and Air Bud 4: Air Bud Spikes Back (simultaneous volleyball and Star Wars pun). Sports fans still marvel at Bo Jackson, an athlete so gifted he could play professional baseball and football simultaneously – well, Bud can do all that AND lick his own balls. So, how about we start giving Bud the attention he is due, eh? Why am I telling you this? Because War Horse, the heart-tingling Hollywood epic that’s considered a favorite for a Best Picture nomination is Air Bud as interpreted by Steven Spielberg. And it’s about time everyone knows it.
The essential appeal to the Air Bud franchise is that there is a dog that can do things humans can do. War Horse is the same, exactly the same, in fact, except War Horse isn’t a dog, and Steven Spielberg can cast better supporting actors. War Horse is a tale about a young boy whose father buys a homeless horse (covering his tracks, Spielberg has changed Bud’s name to Joey), learns the horse is a wiz at gardening and human comprehension, then teams up with Joey to save his family’s farm. Sound familiar? Were the film in the capable hands of Air Bud director Charles Martin Smith, it would’ve ended there. But Spielberg being who he is, he had to push things. Not only does Joey save the farm, but he goes on to give a dying girl a reason to live, fight gallantly for both France AND Germany in the first World War, remind both sides of their humanity which no doubt results in the ultimate cease fire, have a (possibly gay) love affair with another horse, and ultimately return to his boy owner, now a man, and help him convince his taciturn father that it is OK to love. Can Joey shoot a free throw with his snout? We may never know. But that other stuff is pretty damn impressive.
Every scene in War Horse is built the same: create a scenario where an almost God-like person saves the day… then replace that person with a horse. It’s manipulative beyond belief, and at a certain point you wonder what might be left for this great horse to accomplish. Can he cure cancer? Perform a c-section of human twins? Present himself as a viable Republican candidate for the Presidency? These are the questions you expect from a movie about a dog playing sports (“The audience is gonna lose it when when Bud saves the winning goal with his tail!”) — but not from the guy who made Schindler’s List.
The most memorable example begins with Joey hauling missiles for the German army with his (possibly gay) horse mate, Topthorn. The two met when they were both serving in the French army, and remained close after being captured by the Germans. Sadly, Topthorn has contracted an unknown horse disease, and is having trouble pulling the missiles that the brutish Germans so insist upon moving about. When a particularly barbaric German tells Topthorn to get to the front of the cavalcade, Joey immediately stands up for (possibly gay) companion. He neighs, pounds the dirt, and does that thing where horses stand up on their hind legs and move their front hooves around in a circle. Joey convinces the Germans that he is stronger and more capable than Topthorn, and takes over the greuling lead role for his (possibly gay) partner. Topthorn returns to the back of the march where he can get some much needed rest. It’s heartwarming and of course, completely ridiculous. You could easily see this happening with a person. A brave, powerful person who’s heart was as strong as his back. Maybe Russell Crowe. Or Elizabeth Taylor. And that’s what makes the scene seem like such a good idea. We’d love to watch a human perform such a valiant act, imagine how great it would be with a horse! The exact same principle that was no doubt going through the Air Bud screenwriter’s mind as he scripted the final game-winning jumpshot as performed by a canine.
For this to work with a horse, however, Joey would have to speak human, speak German human, love another horse, be braver than pretty much every person alive, and be able to do that thing where horses stand up on their hind legs and move their front hooves around in a circle. It’s fun and all, but it’s also deeply formulaic. And manipulative. And cynical about the state of modern audiences. In short, it sucks. And it’s the sort of thing we accept from maudlin movies we let our kids watch while we’re making dinner, but not really the thing of celebrated Oscar contenders. We can still tell the difference, but I’m starting to get the feeling that maybe Steven Spielberg can’t.
It is only fair to point that War Horse was not Steve’s creation alone. It’s based on a children’s book (surprise, surprise), and its subsequent adaptation as a Broadway and London theater sensation. So there’s more than one person to blame. But just because they were doing it, doesn’t mean you had to too, Steven. In the end, I’m not sure what’s more disappointing, that a great director is adopting the approach of a preposterous series of children’s movies, or that he’s going to get an Oscar nomination for it. Am I going overboard? I thought maybe I was. That is until I read this Twitter review from one of today’s great critical minds…
Now I know it was crap for sure.