War Horse finds the silver lining of individual salvation in one of modern history's darkest thunderclouds: World War I. As the English lad Albert (Jeremy Irvine) bonds with the beloved, half-thoroughbred steed he has named Joey and, once the horse is conscripted by the British army, follows him onto Flanders Field, director Steven Spielberg seeks to represent the horror of modern combat in human (or at least mammalian) terms.
But since he's a moviemaker largely incapable of understatement, War Horse is served up with a self-aggrandizing surplus of Norman Rockwell backlighting and an aggravated sense of doggone wonderment. Had Spielberg elected to show war from Joey's perspective rather than use the horse as the war's protagonist, the movie could have been terrifying. Instead, its most impressive passage is pure digital delirium.
It might be perverse to accuse a tearjerker as accomplished as Spielberg of being unfeeling. But here he mechanically trots out one of his most familiar tropes for what amounts to a generic Disney animal story. What catastrophe cannot be Spielbergized?