World War I was one of the worst things to ever happen, and consequently, there haven't been many feel-good family films about it. Until now. With War Horse, Steven Spielberg -- Mister Wonderment himself -- delivers a glossy fantasia about a boy and his horse, and the bond that sustains them from Devon farm to French trenches to teary reunion.
The lad (Jeremy Irvine) trains the feisty horse named Joey, a "useless" Arabian purchased by his drunken father, until it's sold to pay bills. The horse is purchased by a British officer and in 1914, heads to France, where it is variously in battle, in hiding, in battle, on the loose, in battle and so on. By 1918, the boy is also mired in the muck of war, still pining for his horse (a sketch of which he keeps in his jacket).
The horse is our conduit through the war as the animal changes hands between British officers, French farmers and German soldiers. (There's a smattering of subtitles, but it's mostly silly accents for the English-speaking foreigners.)
It's simplistic to be sure, but the source material is a children's book (later adapted into a play). And perhaps this sort of fable plays better on the printed page than it does in a huge glossy film. Spielberg clearly wants this to be epic -- with highly charged images and soaring score -- and he reaches unabashedly into Golden Hollywood's kit bag for saturated light, low angles to ennoble characters, sweeping vistas to provide scope and hokey dialogue. Throughout, you can hear Spielberg beating the drum for War Horse's obvious themes about honor, humanity and the follies of war.
It's highly polished and looks super, in an old-fashioned kind of way, but it all makes this work feel manipulative rather than heartfelt, as does Speilberg's dual mission to highlight the atrocities of modern mechanized warfare while reveling in sepia-toned sentimentality.
And get ready to suspend disbelief: Millions people -- soldiers and civilians -- didn't survive the Great War, but a horse does? Four years in battle and it doesn't get shot, drop dead from overwork or a nasty infection, or get eaten by the starving?
Well, Joey is quite likely an Allegorical Horse, the steadfast totem through which all players can exhibit their innate humanity when they're not killing one another in the worst possible ways. (You'll know this for sure in one heavy-handed scene amid the barbed wire of no man's land.)
Or, perhaps Joey is, as one amazed British soldier bleats out, "a miraculous sort of 'orse!" Just the sort of useful and upbeat companion that every war needs.