Steven Spielberg is a brand name with as much box-office cachet as nearly any A-list movie star, and this winter, he's directed two tough-sell movies that lean heavily on his moniker: period drama War Horse, which lacks a well-known actor, and The Adventures of Tintin, an animated film starring a character that's virtually foreign to American audiences. With both movies vying for an audience that will come see a Spielberg movie on his name alone, which better pulls off the director's trademarks? Let's pit them against each other in five Spielbergian categories to find out.
Wide-eyed Boy Hero
We must admit, we were a little bit confused by both Tintin and War Horse's Albert Narracott. Namely, just how old were they supposed to be? Tintin looks about as young as kid hero Encyclopedia Brown, but he's got his own apartment, as well as a job and a firearm. Meanwhile, Albert is played by 21-year-old Jeremy Irvine, and yet the kid is obsessed with his pet horse to the exclusion of family, friends, and countryside lasses. Even when he's separated from the horse and enlists in World War I years later, Albert still can't talk about anything but that damn equine. Neither is a patch on Spielberg's classic boy hero Elliott (from E.T.), but give us Tintin anyday over the single-minded Albert, especially since Tintin's formerly worrisome dead eyes were given much more life in the finished film.
Trusted Animal Sidekick
Spielberg is good at building a whole movie around an untamed animal — just think of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, the terrifying shark in Jaws, or Shia LaBeouf in Indiana Jones. Both Tintin and War Horse present Spielberg with different challenges: Tintin's adorable dog Snowy is an all-CG creation, while War Horse's Joey is almost entirely real (unlike the puppet version made famous by the stage production). So who wins in a Snowy-Joey matchup? In an upset, we've got to give the nod to Tintin's loyal companion, since we never felt as moved by Joey as Spielberg clearly hoped we would be.
Signature Spielberg Set Pieces
War Horse can boast a couple of truly impressive sequences: The misty, Tom Hiddleston–led attack on German forces is a doozy, as is the scene where Joey gallops lightning fast through a battlefield, his run eventually slowed by all the barbed wire he gets caught up in. Still, Tintin has perhaps the most audacious scene of the year, a minutes-long, "one-take" action sequence where Tintin coasts along a Morocco clothesline on his motorcycle turned unicycle as Snowy chases a bird's valuable cargo and an entire building careens down the hillside, carried along by a flood. It's the moment in the movie that finally makes the case for Spielberg's motion-capture approach, a mathematical marvel of intersecting action beats with an A, a B, and a C story. There wasn't anything like it in a movie this year (or possibly any year).
War Horse nods to John Ford in general with specific homages to Lawrence of Arabia (that Hiddleston battle scene) and Gone With the Wind (that red, red sky in the final act). Meanwhile, Spielberg steals from himself with Tintin, where he recaptures the spirit of the wild chases in Indiana Jones, but outdoes even the previous Indy installment, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
Tintin doesn't even bother with your tear ducts, but War Horse is designed to be a carefully concentrated charge on them. With all of its deaths and dreamy reunions, something is bound to get you. (Though not much worked on us aside from the final, moving sacrifice of Niels Arestrup.)
Winner: War Horse
It looks like our Spielbergian winner is Tintin! Congratulations, kiddo: Accept this honor with a slow push-in on your awestruck gaze.