Based on Michael Morpurgo’s book which I haven’t read – previously a well-regarded play I didn’t see – this is Steven Spielberg’s take on the sapient animal true-life adventure (yes, it’s a Disney), and hard to take seriously on any level though it’s reasonably entertaining throughout its long running time. Part of the trouble is that, unlike Spielberg’s many takes on WWII, this feels third- or fourth-hand as he tries to come to grips with WWI that’s compiled from bits of films (from Paths of Glory to O What a Lovely War) and a Devon setting that feels Fordian in the How Green Was My Valley sense that there’s no sense in trying to make it not seem laughable to yokels who actually live there when it might as well look and sound just like Ireland in The Quiet Man, complete with all-over-the-place Borsetshire/Mummerset accents and orange skies at sunset. It’s pretty much My Friend Flicka dropped into Saving Private Ryan.
Young Albert (Jeremy Irvine) is in love with Joey, the horse his limping father (Peter Mullan) pays too much for at auction, and proves that the half-thoroughbread can pull a plough … then, a la The Yellow Rolls Royce or those other chain-of-events Hollywood films, Joey is sold to a cavalry officer (Tom Hiddleston) who gets machine-gunnde in the first charge of the war and passes through various owners (most of whom get killed) to allow episodes on both sides of the trenches and among putupon civilians. It’s notionally a children’s film, so there are lots of explosions and some mud but almost no blood and various tricks are used to avoid showing people mown down by bullets – a weird, if silly cavalry charge where riderless horses stream past the gun positions though logically they should have been cut off at the knees, a passing windmill blade that obscures the summary execution of two young German deserters – or generally mutilated by the nasty nasty fighting. In the end, Joey – who has a horsey homoerotic bonding with a big black officer’s horse who gets lost in the plot several episodes in – is reunited with Albert, and the whole regiment chips in to help save him from (get this!) a villainous French horse butcher who wants him for stewmeat, though it’s actually a high-spending old French jam-maker (Niels Arestrup) who pays for him, in memory of his granddaughter (Celine Buckens), another owner who didn’t live through the war.
The diamond-foreheaded, white-socked nag is shown to be supernaturally clever, which probably means he ought to be held culpable for collaborating with the enemy hauling the German heavy guns about. It keeps doing things which look cool but are just stupid – the big ploughing scene has huge stones all over the field to show how difficult the task is, which makes Albert a clot for not removing them first, and he starts just before nightfall and a rainstorm so the whole community (not having jobs to do, apparently) can show up and watch – landlord David Thewlis gets some sneering in before Mum Emily Watson snaps at him – and then drift away as the team triumphantly plough into the rainy night. A good cast of Brits, Frogs and Krauts plays it at caricature level, presumably so the horses – lovely, but blank-eyed – can be more convincing: Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Marsan, Toby Kebbell (token Geordie, who rescues Joey from the wire in No Man’s Land with the aid of a horse-loving German in a mini-armistice), David Dencik, Pip Torrens, Geoff Bell, Nicholas Bro (so Spielberg is watching The Killing II too). Joey probably has as big a post-Spielberg career ahead as Brad Johnson or Alison Doody. Written by Lee Hall and Richard Curtis.