Steven Spielberg puts a sunny disposition on World War I in this shamelessly old-fashioned (read sentimental) rendering of Nick Stafford's stage play, which was based on Michael Morpurgo's 1982 children's novel. The horrors of the famously brutal war get mashed through a Disney filter toward a cinematic experience not unlike the feeling you get from a Howard Hawks western.
From a filmmaking perspective "War Horse" is stunning. Every shot is an exquisite composition to be revered. From a narrative perspective, things get dicey. Character development comes across as a flat line for a young man named Albert (Jeremy Irvine) and the charismatic horse his father (Peter Mullan) over-leverages the family farm to purchase in spite of the horse’s dubious capacity for pulling a plow. As the title predicts, Albert's newly procured horse “Joey” is conscripted for battle use by the British cavalry from the family’s rented pastoral farm home in Devon, England. A greedy landlord (wonderfully played by Daniel Thewlis) waits with baited breath to foreclose on the property. Joey gets shipped into battle in France before being captured by the Germans. Naturally, Albert enlists in the army in spite of his underage status in order to get back his much-loved equine possession. Sadly, Peter Mullan, and the family matriarch Rose (Emily Watson), get relegated to third-class supporting character status.
For all of its soft-peddled nostalgia “War Horse” methodically hits every mark of emotional degree with surgical precision. Still, the movie remains a lightweight rendition of war wherein a horse is the ostensible hero. Crocodile tears will almost certainly be shed by audiences who go along for the ride.
Rated PG-13. 146 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)