LOOKING BACK, Paddle to the Sea must have been the only movie my elementary school owned, because we watched it 100,000 times. Paddle to the Sea is a Canadian film about a little carved wooden canoe that gets tossed into a mountain stream; we follow the boat as it gradually floats toward the ocean, having all kinds of adventures along the way. Of course, the canoe never actually does anything. Rather, things happen to it.
Such is the case with Steven Spielberg's Battle Pony*, based on a trifle of a kids' book by Michael Morpurgo and blown out to epic, big-budget proportions. For two and a half hours, Spielberg follows a smart, talented pony named Joey through World War I. (Back then, they just called it the War.) Joey starts off on the British side, then gets captured by Germans, then ends up on a picturesque French farm with windmills, then finds himself caught in No Man's Land between English and German troops. Barring the odd nicker or whinny, the horse does not emote in any recognizable fashion. The horse is, more or less, incidental to the episodic plots of the various humans he comes in contact with.
As a dramatic narrative, then, Steven Spielberg's Battle Pony* is a failure. The humans—barring a great, brief cameo from Benedict Cumberbatch and a quick glimpse of the wonderful, otherwise wasted Eddie Marsan—are completely uninteresting, especially the doofy farm boy who raised Joey back in Ol' Blighty. There are some exceptional passages, though, that remind you why Spielberg is Spielberg—in particular, a masterful, jarring sequence of trench warfare. But the film's tone is all over the place, with some scenes played for mawkish sentiment and others for cheap laughs. Steven Spielberg's Battle Pony* is the best and worst of the director, in one very long, very mixed bag. Of oats!†
*EDITOR'S NOTE: Yes, we know the movie is not actually called Steven Spielberg's Battle Pony. However, we have decided that "Steven Spielberg's Battle Pony" is far superior to "War Horse," so we will henceforth refer to it thusly.
† EDITOR HERE AGAIN: Sorry.