Steven Spielberg’s War Horse continues the 2012 Oscars trend of handsomely made and utterly unthreatening movies. Adapted from, let us not forget, a children’s book and also owing a huge (and credited) debt to the National Theatre’s stage version, this is bracing, stirring, wryly funny with a great feeling for time and place and character. It’s also an almost suffocatingly cosy chocolate box of a movie which never even begins to transcend its kid-friendly origins.

Lack of time and planning this year means I haven’t done my homework as well as I could have. I haven’t read Michael Morpurgo’s novel in which the story is told from the horse’s point of view. Nor have I seen the acclaimed theatre production. So I am forced to judge Spielberg’s movie on its own terms, but I can’t help feeling that an extra element, such as a first-horse perspective or an astonishing feat of puppetry would be required to makes this naïve fable into something richer and more arresting.

Given that the narrative is going to be rendered in such a straightforward way, Spielberg is an ideal match for the material. His camera swoops and darts, virtually canters, around the environments and with no need for funny glasses he creates tremendous depth and energy in every frame. Possibly no director working today understands light, space and movement better than he does and together with production design Rick Carter and director of photography Janusz Kaminski render the rolling hills of Devon, the French woodlands and the grime of the trenches with an incredible lush richness. Parts of it look like they were shot in 1940s Technicolor, but unfortunately this same simplistic approach carries through to the rest of the movie.

It’s not just that the characters are so broadly drawn, or that in deference to his young audience, Spielberg tastefully cuts away from or otherwise elides the deaths of speaking characters. Bluntly, in story terms, any adult watching this movie is required to accept that Joey – the central equine character – is a horse who is so unimaginably appealing that adults and teenagers from almost any background fall in love with him as soon as they see him, and in the grip of this romantic delusion, they are then compelled to spend vast sums upon him, adopt him, even risk their own lives to protect him, and finally to put themselves in the line of fire to be reunited with him. The fragile spell which this movie casts could be shattered at any moment if anyone were just to say “I’m terribly sorry, this is just a horse like any other, isn’t it? I do beg your pardon, I must have lost my mind for a moment.”

This danger is most apparent during the incredible scene where Joey is rescued from No Man’s Land. Here Lee Hall and Richard Curtis’s script, as well as some nicely underplayed performances, just about prevent the on-screen action from tipping into total absurdity. As it is, credibility is merely strained and not completely shattered.

By the time Joey rides joyfully home, silhouetted like Lassie against a painterly sunset, I assume the idea is that there isn’t a dry eye in the house, and if I was a horse-obsessed eleven year old girl then I might have succumbed. But even John Williams’ swooping strings couldn’t wring a single tear from my stubborn eyes.

This I followed with Moneyball, the true story of how a baseball team struggling for cash harnessed the power of statistics to identify overlooked and undervalued players and change the nature of the game. This is a fascinating story, with a sharp script from old hand Steven Zaillian, burnished up by Aaron Sorkin – who fits this material like a catchers’ mitt – and it’s certainly a film for grown-ups as opposed to War Horse.

Watching the story unfold, I was never bored, but I was struck by the fact that it’s very much a process story – a sports procedural if such a thing were to exist. I’m inclined to give the larger share of the credit to Sorkin for making the early scenes between Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane and his army of advisors, and then with Jonah Hill’s pudgy economics whizzkid so engaging. The dialogue crackles without ever seeming overly smart. But there’s a remote, chilly feel which the brief divergences to Billy’s family life and history in the game of baseball does little to dispel. In fact, at times, these glimpses of the human life behind the quasi-political struggle feel like distractions.

What’s curious is that there’s no attempt to bring the emotional story and the procedural aspects together in any meaningful way, beyond a few fist-pumps and exhortations. When Billy’s carefully constructed team on a shoe-string budget is not deployed on the field the way he intended, he has to outmanoeuvre the team manager Art Howe, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. But although we understand how Billy forced Art’s hand, there’s never any emotional pay-off – not even when Art starts getting the credit for Billy’s savvy hiring. The character just fades away as unceremoniously as he appeared. Nor does Jonah Hill’s character seem to grow or respond to his new success in any way. And it’s part of Billy’s story that he remains resolutely fixed on his goal even as the movie closes – in fact, the moment which moved me the most is a caption which appears at the end of the film, just before the credits roll, which says a lot about the approach taken.

But, before I’m tempted to say outright, that this would have been better as a talking-heads documentary, which would have allowed even more analysis of the statistical methods used (“woo!”) I must pause and acknowledge the contribution that Brad Pitt makes. No longer just a pretty boy actor, Pitt is now a genuine movie star in every sense of the word, and he illuminates the whole of Moneyball, making the whole thing seem worthwhile.

So, that’s six down and three to go, and at the moment I feel like I would happily rewatch The King’s Speech before I saw any of them again and that The Hurt Locker absolutely pisses on all six of them. But my movie week wasn’t entirely disappointing. I won’t say too much about The Muppets except that it is wonderful. Knowing enough for the adults, sweet enough for the kids, funny enough for the teens, and if Fozzie Bear sometimes doesn’t sound quite right, then that’s a small price to pay for having Kermit and Co back. Commission the sequel right now!

Update Feb 2012
The Oscars 2012 – Part Four – Predictions