It might be perverse to accuse a tearjerker as accomplished as Steven Spielberg of being unfeeling. But the overcalculation with which he mechanically trots out one of his most familiar tropes for what amounts to a generic Disney animal story seems to preclude any but the most hackneyed emotion. What catastrophe cannot be Spielbergized? No less than Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, War Horse finds the silver lining of individual salvation in one of modern history's darkest thunderclouds: World War I.
As the English lad Albert (Jeremy Irvine) bonds with the beloved, half-thoroughbred steed he has named Joey and, once the horse is conscripted by the British army, follows him into Flanders Field, Spielberg seeks to represent the horror of modern combat in human (or at least mammalian) terms. But since he's a director largely incapable of understatement, War Horse is served up with a self-aggrandizing surplus of Norman Rockwell backlighting and an aggravated sense of doggone wonderment. Had Spielberg elected to show war from Joey's perspective rather than using the horse as the war's protagonist, the movie could have been terrifying. Instead, its most impressive passage is pure digital delirium as an animated Joey runs free across the CGI battlefield, rearing up under the full moon. That Joey!
Uniting doughboys and officers, the Brits and the Bosch, mending broken hearts and restoring eyesight to the blind, this indomitable horse does not reproach humanity. Embodying what his creators take to be our best, most enduring instincts, he justifies it. —J. Hoberman (Citywide)