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Joey and Snowy, Take a Bow

Taking in two end-of-year releases directed by Steven Spielberg, I was reminded of Spielberg’s enormous cinematic range and appetites, and why he continues to be a seminal influence on the art and business of moviemaking. Of “The Adventures of Tintin” and “War Horse” — both outstanding achievements — I preferred the former. This animated film, based on a classic series of 20th-century comic books by the Belgian artist known as Hergé, is light, loose, and terrifically entertaining. The title character (voiced by Jamie Bell) is a young gumshoe reporter in the Hardy Boys mold, with bright red hair topped by a cowlick.  On purchasing a model ship, the “Unicorn,” at a street fair, he and his trusty terrier, Snowy, are quickly drawn into a mystery involving the kidnapped Captain Haddock (a delightful Andy Serkis) and the sinister Sakharine (Daniel Craig). Nick Frost and Simon Pegg play a pair of bumbling Scotland Yard detectives, Thomson and Thompson, who unwittingly help solve the puzzle, which revolves around sunken treasure and an old grudge between pirates and seamen.  The 3D animation of “Tintin” is stunning. The humans are so lifelike you are apt to forget they are computerized creations.  A sea battle rages with visceral energy to burn, while a scene of sailors sliding off their hammocks in the hold is hilarious and could not have been done with real bodies. “Tintin,” which clocks in at barely more than an hour and a half, is brisk fun, and the story leaves room for one or more sequels.  Bring them on. At the other end of the spectrum is “War Horse,” Spielberg’s sprawling, two-and-a-half hour ode to equine beauty and wartime horrors. It is surely the first, and probably the last, war film to be told through the eyes of a horse, Joey.   Raised on a Devonshire farm by a devoted young man, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), Joey has extraordinary qualities that win over all who come in contact with him.  As World War I dawns, he is called into action first by the British cavalry, and then he falls into enemy hands. There are times when I’ve been concerned that Spielberg’s obsession with war movies amounts to a kind of “war-nography,” that by maximizing the realism in films like “Saving Private Ryan,” he risks inoculating us to the brutality of war and hence glorifying it. “War Horse” does no such thing. The grainy realism is dialed back, but the senselessness of the killing — British soldiers being mowed down by machine guns as they lead an old-fashioned charge, for example — is uncompromisingly portrayed.  Spielberg also avoids any intimations of national heroism by giving Joey as many loving German handlers as he has English ones.  Every soldier is caught up in events beyond his control, a timeless concept that hits home in a climactic scene of enemy soldiers rescuing Joey on the battlefield. In a film of quality performances, of particular note are Emily Watson as Albert’s mother, soldiering on in a nearly all-male movie, and Niels Arestrup as a French farmer and grandfather who briefly comes into possession of the horse. Irvine, unfortunately, is the weak link. He reminds me of the young Ethan Hawke, all ardency but little range. The risk for Spielberg films such as this is a tendency to go overboard on the mawkishness and pedantry.  Indeed, in “War Horse,” he leaves no stone unturned, literally: an early defining moment for Joey is when he learns to plow a rock-strewn field. Nevertheless, “War Horse” is ultimately a moving and visually magnificent film, well worth every minute. “War Horse” is rated PG-13 for war violence. “The Adventures of Tintin” is rated PG for adventure action violence, some drunkenness and brief smoking.  Both are playing at theaters throughout our area.

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