Movie Review: War Horse Shows Spielberg at His Emotional Best

Review in a Hurry: Feeling the need for steed? Pony up for this sweeping horse tale from director Steven Spielberg, which straddles the years of World War I and stars Jeremy Irvine as a young soldier separated from his beloved horse. An old-fashioned tearjerker, this winning War Horse is well worth the ride.

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The Bigger Picture: Just in time for Christmas, Hollywood delivers another movie about a horse—of course, of course. But War Horse has an impressive pedigree, adapted from the bestselling novel as well as the Tony Award-winning play, which employed life-size equine puppets. Director Spielberg, however, casts real animals (plus fine human actors), and the result is as magnificent as the titular bay-red beauty.

In rural England, teenaged Albert (Irvine) befriends a foal he names Joey. To prevent the evil, mustachioed landlord from taking their farm, Albert tames and trains the horse to plow the fields, but his dad (Peter Mullan) still has to sell Joey—to the British cavalry.

The story expands beyond boy-and-horse bonding as global war marches to the fore. Vowing to track down Joey, Albert enlists in the army and soon is hurled into combat. Meanwhile, Joey takes an amazing journey, touching the lives of many people affected by war, including a British captain, German soldiers and a French jam-maker and his granddaughter.

Revisiting his frequent theme of separation from home and loved ones, Spielberg gallops a line here between romanticism and grit—sort of an amalgam of his earlier work. Critics may complain that battle scenes are basically bloodless, but clearly, the director wants to make the film accessible to families and wrenchingly depicts horrors of war without Saving Private Ryan levels of violence.

Working with director of photography Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg creates glorious widescreen compositions and orchestrates stirring sequences, notably Joey’s climactic sprint across a scarred battlefield tangled with barbed wire. With its epic storytelling, lush photography and color-saturated vistas, War Horse nods (and whinnies) to such classics as National Velvet, The Yearling and Gone With the Wind.

Even if your heart doesn’t grow three sizes, your cockles will be warmed.

The 180—a Second Opinion: Longtime Spielberg collaborator John Williams slathers the film with an emotional score, but the images are so expressive that more understatement would have been a better counterpoint.

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