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?
Ever since The Color Purple, Spielberg has managed to alternate between mass-market entertainment and prestige-inviting drama — 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 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), while a key to a lost treasure is 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 that are hard to imagine any other filmmaker pulling off as effectively. After all this time, nobody can use the tools of filmmaking to turn viewers into kids again like Spielberg.
But he also leaves vacant human spaces in the center of some of his blockbusters, and Tintin suffers from 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 its 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."
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 the significance: his trademark slow zoom in, the under-the-chin hero shots, the glorious landscapes set to John Williams music. But 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.