'War Horse' offers old-school polish and emotion, critics say
"War Horse," Steven Spielberg's second horse in the awards season race, arrives on the heels of his animated film "The Adventures of Tintin." A drama about the special bond between a boy and his horse separated by the horrors of World War I, "War Horse" is based on the 1982 children's book by Michael Morpurgo and its recent stage adaptation, a huge success in London and New York. Reviews for "War Horse," which opens Sunday, have been favorable, though not faultless, with many critics commending Spielberg's classical approach.
Times critic Betsy Sharkey says the film "has the sweep of a classic John Ford movie, the sentiment of Frank Capra and a spirited steed named Joey who will steal your heart. The film itself … is more difficult to love." Structurally, Sharkey says, "War Horse" is "the purest sort of love story," following the traditional three-act structure of introduction, separation and reunion. It's slow to start, "with the earlier scenes flat and too many subplots … that don't pay off," but the pace picks up when the war begins. Ultimately, Sharkey says, it's Joey's film: "The incredible emotive power of this horse and the way in which the filmmakers were able to translate it on-screen are what stay with you."
The San Francisco Chronicle's Mick LaSalle finds Spielberg's latest film "as messy as it is inspired." It has all the hallmarks of a Spielberg picture, he says, with "sentimentality and grandly obvious effects," but also truthful acting and brilliant action sequences. Lost in the translation from page and stage to screen is "narrative cohesion," with the film's episodic story feeling "start-and-stop," though Spielberg does his best to enliven each segment. " 'War Horse' is not Spielberg's best movie, nor is it even close," LaSalle writes. "But it's no small thing that it contains some of his best stuff."
New York Times film critic A.O. Scott advises giving in to Spielberg's old-fashioned approach: "Suppress your instinctive impatience, quiet the snarky voice in your head and allow yourself to recall, or perhaps to discover, the deep pleasures of sincerity." He adds, "while 'War Horse' is, like so many of Mr. Spielberg’s films, a work of supreme artifice, it is also a self-conscious attempt to revive and pay tribute to a glorious tradition of honest, emotionally direct storytelling."
In the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert says the film is "made with superb artistry," and that many of the scenes are "magnificent." He even goes so far as to assert, "Surely some of the best footage Spielberg has ever directed involves Joey and other horses running wild outside the trenches." However, Ebert writes that the high craftsmanship of "War Horse," combined with its structure of self-contained chapters, "reduces the center of the film to a series of set pieces." In the end, Ebert says, the film is "joyous" and "uplifting," though it "depends on a surely unbelievable set of coincidences" and only hints at "the level of sheer hopeless tragedy" that characterized the war.
Ty Burr, of the Boston Globe, calls "War Horse" both "nakedly nostalgic" and "self-consciously old-school, to the point where you can feel Spielberg treating us like children." It is impressively crafted, Burr says, but also has moments that are cliched or cloying: "High Hollywood corn, expertly roasted."
Though it may come as no surprise, critics are clear on one thing: "War Horse" is very much a Steven Spielberg movie, for all that entails.
— Oliver Gettell
Photo: Jeremy Irvine in "War Horse." Credit: Andrew Cooper / SMPSP / DreamWorks