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War Horse

Critics sometimes get accused of being prejudiced against Steven Spielberg because of his phenomenal commercial success and crowd-pleasing style. That may not be entirely untrue. So I’d like to point out that, due to a rather hectic December, I went into War Horse knowing absolutely nothing about it (which is how I’d see every movie if I could): As the film has no opening credits, I didn’t know who directed it until it was over.

War Horse is adapted from the popular children’s book that looked at the carnage of World War One through the eyes of a horse. Along the way it was also a Tony-winning play, though lauded more for its stagecraft (using puppet-headed actors to play horses) than its writing. In Spielberg’s hands, via a script written by veteran audience-pleasers Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) and Richard Curtis (Love Always), this becomes the equivalent of a 1963 Disney movie, albeit better photographed and with some large-scale depictions of battle as wholesale slaughter.

There are individual scenes of great power and an overall command of craft, but as a whole the movie is too episodic to fully engage you. Joey, the horse, is wisely not anthropomorphized (he was the narrator of the book), but as he passes from the farm boy who loves him through the hands of British soldiers, a French farmgirl, and service in the German army, we never spend enough time with any characters to bring us emotionally into the film. Yet the war itself remains abstract, a horror to be endured and not understood. That Joey survives—surely I’m not giving anything away—through four years of this is awfully hard to believe, yet he does, for a final act featuring three or four heart-tugging climaxes.

War Horse is being promoted as a family film, but parents should be warned that a bravura sequence of Joey running between enemy trenches and getting caught in barbed wire will be the stuff of nightmares for horse-loving children of any age.

Watch the trailer for War Horse

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