It's easy to get cynical about a new Steven Spielberg movie at Christmas, especially one about a boy and his beloved horse. The studio marketing campaign inevitably pushes all the right buttons, promising a heartwarming tale of courage during a time of great personal sacrifice. But at the end of a holiday movie season noted by even casual observers as underwhelming, War Horse arrives as something of a thoroughbred. Earnest and openly emotional to a fault, it nevertheless fulfills Spielberg's obvious desire to achieve the kind of modest, un-ironic storytelling that once gave Hollywood its Golden Age.
Of course, War Horse's production values are anything but modest. From the gorgeous opening shots of the English countryside to a final scene of almost otherworldly physical beauty, the director spares no expense and doesn't care who knows it. Spielberg opted to shoot thousands of extras and hundreds of real horses when he could have done it all digitally. But early on, that epic scale results in a first act that's dangerously ponderous and slow, and too long by almost half.
Eventually it's boy meets horse, boy loses horse to the war effort, boy vows to find horse (both will be conscripted) and bring him home safely. The rest of this long movie sprints ahead pleasurably as the horse, named Joey, suffers the vagaries of World War I — the last major military conflict to rely heavily on horses for battle, and for manual labor like pulling artillery up steep hills. The horse changes hands repeatedly to develop the story and introduce new characters. As Joey's adventures evolve, War Horse turns episodic, but it works as the world's first equine road movie.
The constant shifts give War Horse some firepower and allow for a number of small, standout performances that benefit from the forced brevity. David Thewlis is especially memorable as the evil landlord who sets the story in motion, and Emily Watson establishes the right tone early with an understated turn as the boy's long-suffering mother. Newcomer Jeremy Irvine plays the lad with the almost unhealthy attachment to his horse, and he emotes a bit too much for the good of the film. Thankfully, he's reined in before he can ride War Horse into Lassie Come Home territory.
Despite its title, War Horse never really feels like a war movie. Based on a children's book written from the horse's perspective and inspired by the still-running puppet-based Broadway show that first sprang from the book, the film avoids flag-waving and never glorifies the conflict. One remarkably intense battle sequence does recall the invasion of Normandy recreated by Spielberg at the beginning of Saving Private Ryan. But War Horse is a simple story about people, and one very large animal, as they struggle with man-made circumstances far beyond their control. And it's not so easy to get cynical about that. — Ken Korman