Spoiler Level: Low
I am occasionally accused of being a cynical bastard—and the accusation is not wholly without merit—but a cynical bastard could not have fallen so completely for the old-fashioned Hollywood charms of War Horse, the second—and far better—of the two Steven Spielberg films currently in theaters. In fact, War Horse seems almost specifically designed to counter my criticisms of The Adventures of Tintin, and to stave off any argument about whether Spielberg—unarguably at the height of his technical powers—has lost his ability to really move audiences. Epic, humane, and admirably unafraid of sentiment, War Horse is pure old-school family storytelling. If you'll surrender your own cynicism long enough to forgive an unavoidable movie-review cliché, it's the kind of movie they just don't make any more.
War Horse opens with the birth of the title character, a horse named Joey, on a peaceful farm in the idyllic Devon dales. A boy named Albert (Jeremy Irvine) witnesses the birth, and falls in love with the colt immediately, and so is thrilled when his drunken father Ted (Peter Mullan) imprudently purchases the animal at auction. Albert's mother Rose (Emily Watson) is less thrilled—the struggling farm needs a plowhorse, not an untrained thoroughbred—but the boy and his father see something special in Joey, and believe the horse can be trained to do the work necessary to save the farm from their cruel landlord (David Thewlis).
Joey proves his worth—in what must be the first genuinely suspenseful field-plowing scene in cinema history—but then disaster strikes the farm; with a war coming, Ted must break his son's heart and sell Joey to a kind cavalry officer (Tom Hiddleston). Thus begins the first of Joey's episodic adventures through the First World War, as he is passed from owner to owner on both sides of the trenches. He takes part in a cavalry attack, pulls an ambulance for the Germans, briefly becomes the pet of a sickly french girl (Celine Buckens) and her grandfather (an excellent Niels Arestrup), is cruelly forced to pull heavy German artillery, and becomes horrifically tangled in barbed wire in the hellish desolation of No Man's Land. Meanwhile, Albert has found himself on the front lines as well, having never stopped hoping that fate might reunite him with his beloved horse.
If all of this sounds rather corny, it is: based on a children's book by Michael Morpugo (later a Tony-award winning stage play), the screenplay by Lee Hall (Billy Eliot) and Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral) does not attempt to smooth out the improbabilities of Joey's survival story, which relies on incredible coincidences, remarkable luck, and a seemingly endless series of kindhearted strangers who recognize Joey's specialness. Spielberg strikes just the right balance in showing us Joey's nature without ridiculously anthropomorphizing him: there are a few moments when Joey seems to make decisions with an almost human awareness, but for the most part he remains a horse. (The human actors—all of whom speak English, of course, in various and varying accents—are a mixed bag, but the performances by the animals are uniformly stellar.)
A few sequences, such as the Heidi-like segment of the girl and her grandfather, do edge right up to the threshold of unbearably twee. But War Horse has an unshakable, genuinely sincere commitment to its old-style storytelling that makes the film work: it hearkens back to a more innocent era of filmmaking in a way that wins us over. I found myself quickly remembering what it was like, as a child, to watch a movie like this, and I have trouble believing that any but the most bitter of ironic hipsters will fail to do the same.
And the sweetness is balanced, throughout, by the breathtaking, often terrifying spectacle of the First World War. Spielberg, of course, is nearly unrivaled in presenting warfare on-screen: here, he bears in mind his younger audience—War Horse is nowhere near as gruesomely realistic as Saving Private Ryan—but the battle scenes nonetheless maintain their scale, excitement, and incredible impact.
It is this balance of sentiment and scope that makes War Horse so effective: it is a children's story, but it is a one presented as children's stories so rarely are these days, with real heart and a genuine respect for its audience. (It is rated PG-13, but I would not hesitate to take any but the smallest children to see War Horse: it is not always an easy story, but neither were Old Yeller or The Yearling.) It is rare, also, to see a family story presented in this kind of grand scale: a Disney-style hand-drawn animated feature might have seemed a more natural storytelling mode for War Horse, but instead Spielberg has made a grand, John Ford-style picture with real actors, real animals, and incredible production values: War Horse is a big movie that feels like a big movie, the sort of sweeping adventure that will make children stare up at the screen with wonder.
Adults—at least the open-hearted ones—will likely view War Horse with wonder as well, but it will be of a different sort. We are likely to view the film with a curiously transporting nostalgia, a begrudging admiration, and a startling recognition of how much movies have changed. However manipulative, however sentimental, however innocent, the old style Hollywood directors knew what they were doing: they understood how audiences would respond to a gorgeous red sunset, to the bond between a boy and his horse, or to the satisfying improbability of a happy ending. The movies may have changed since the golden age of Hollywood epics, and these things may have gone out of fashion, but—by inviting us to surrender to the old-fashioned heart-tugging of War Horse—Spielberg gets us to admit that we really haven't changed at all.