At first, it might seem like an absurd question: Though he's been part of the American pop-culture consciousness for more than 35 years and is arguably the most successful director in the history of the medium, do we really know who Steven Spielberg is as a filmmaker?
This isn't about trying to pigeonhole someone, or oblige him to be what fans might want him to be. Ever since The Color Purple, Spielberg has managed to alternate between mass-market entertainments and prestige-inviting dramas—often one of each within the same calendar year. Inevitably, though, there's an urge within movie lovers to take sides. Do we prefer the Spielberg of Schindler's List or the Spielberg of Jurassic Park? War of the Worlds or Munich? And why does it seem that he too rarely finds material that showcases him as both an emotional storyteller and a technical genius?
This holiday season's double-dose of Spielberg captures everything he does brilliantly—and everything that you miss when it's not there. His technical-marvel spectacle is The Adventures of Tintin, adapted into motion-capture animation from the comic-book series created by the Belgian writer/artist Hergé in 1929. The titular hero (Jamie Bell) is a young investigative reporter who gets tangled up in trouble when the model ship he purchases at a flea market turns out to be sought by the mysterious Sakharine (Daniel Craig), a key to a lost treasure connected to the perpetually inebriated Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis).
Visually, Tintin offers an exponential leap in the potential for motion-capture adventure, with action set pieces—most notably the remarkable, dizzying centerpiece chase through a Moroccan seaside village—that it's hard to imagine any other filmmaker pulling off as effectively. Some of the scene transitions are similarly brilliant, with Captain Haddock's hallucinatory dehydration/detox flashback turning sand dunes into rolling ocean waves. After all this time, nobody can use the tools of filmmaking to turn viewers into kids again like Spielberg can.
But he also leaves vacant human spaces in the center of some of his blockbusters, and Tintin suffers from having a central character who's a bland engine of determined, cowlick-haired pluckiness. While supporting players provide occasional energy and humor, our hero simply grinds from one plot point to another whenever stuff isn't flying or exploding. It's like Raiders of the Lost Ark, if Indiana Jones had been played by Taylor Lautner.
War Horse faces a similar problem, for a different reason: The central character isn't a human being at all. Instead, this version of Michael Malpurgo's book-turned-Tony-winning play follows a thoroughbred named Joey, from his birth on a farm in the Devon countryside in 1912 and his training by the boy who loves him, Albert (Jeremy Irvine), through his service in the British cavalry of World War I and other adventures in wartime France.
It's not easy finding a through-line for a story that, in literary form, was narrated by the horse through encounters with half a dozen key human caretakers. Spielberg and screenwriters Lee Hall and Richard Curtis manage to find that focus through examples of a key line spoken by a French farmer (Niels Arestrup) whose granddaughter finds Joey: "There are different ways to be brave." And it's fascinating watching Spielberg bend the graphic brand of battle scene he mastered in Saving Private Ryan to a PG-13 rating, including the haunting image of dozens of riderless horses to convey the losses in a machine-gun attack on the cavalry.
Like Tintin, War Horse boasts plenty of terrific individual scenes—and here, Spielberg is slightly better at pulling it all together emotionally. He falls back on his old bag of tricks to make sure we grasp Significance: his trademark slow zoom in; under-the-chin hero shots; glorious landscapes set to John Williams's music. It's risky leaving Albert entirely for a large chunk of the film, because the boy in this boy-and-his-dog tale begins to seem somewhat irrelevant. As effective as some of the episodes may be, War Horse still feels essentially episodic.
We've seen the Steven Spielberg who connects his unmatched craftsmanship to a gripping human story—in E.T., in Schindler's List, in Jaws—enough to know what it looks like. With both of this year's films, curiously, we're seeing the same alternate Spielberg: the one who knows exactly how to make a cinematic story look but isn't quite sure how to make it feel.
War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin open at The Carmike 12 Friday, Dec. 23.