After several years of comparatively challenging filmmaking - the misfire of the last Indiana Jones movie notwithstanding - Steven Spielberg is back in the gee-whiz populist mode that marked his '80s output. That's not necessarily a bad thing. In his epic World War I fable War Horse, the director finds a canny balance between the golden-hued schmaltz of The Color Purple and Always and the gritty brutality of his later Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List. It's the right approach for this episodic saga of a beautiful horse named Joey, who develops a friendship with a poor farmboy on the idyllic English countryside, only to be "drafted" into the British Army, and from there moved about from one voluntary caretaker to another as the war gets bloodier and ever more senseless.
There are strong traces of John Ford in the film's first act - Spielberg's work is obviously informed by Ford's "old country" classics such as How Green Was My Valley and The Quiet Man - but the battlefield scenes actually reminded me less of Spielberg's own war movies (notably, as War Horse is PG-13 and ostensibly designed for mature children, the violence is muted and mostly off screen) than of Roman Polanski's The Pianist, as it is Joey's nonpartisan grandeur that saves his life, just as Polanski's hero escaped the horrors of the Holocaust because of his musical talent.
There's a funny thing about horse movies, though. Whereas I can anthropomorphize the expressions in a dog's face, and find the depth within the carefully coaxed body language of other on-screen animals, there's something about a horse's glassy-eyed blankness that keeps me from believing in any emotional connection between the creature and its human companions. Horse lovers will disagree. But Joey's willingness to serve anyone who treats him kindly still suggests a lack of commitment to any one human. Nevertheless, with truly exquisite cinematography by Spielberg's longtime DP Janusz Kaminski and just the right blend of corniness and authenticity, War Horse is high quality storytelling.