Steven Spielberg, contemporary film’s sentimental serialist, strikes again with this heart-tugging story about young Albert (Jeremy Irvine), a British farm boy who enlists to fight in World War I after his father (Peter Mullan) sells his horse, Joey, to the cavalry in order to save the family farm. Albert and Joey embark on parallel Forrest Gump-ian adventures across numerous improbable fronts with battle sequences that rival the gore and punch of Saving Private Ryan. Intriguingly, it is on the battlefield where Spielberg and his film damn near win the war.

Plainly, Spielberg has too much respect for the high price of war to veer towards the surreal in his depiction of the combat atrocities, like say, Joe Wright’s Atonement, which captured the spectacle of the theater of battle in artfully grotesque tableaus as if representing not just war but the descent into the fiery pits of the inferno. Instead, as he surveys the aftermath of these clashes, Spielberg scans quickly, offering the torn, broken and bloody bodies in a distant relief. He refuses, out of good taste and sense (in the service no doubt to the PG-13 rating as well), to rub our faces in the carnage like he did in Saving Private Ryan. Kids, especially contemporary audiences, all too familiar with multiple wars and parents away on military actions, don’t need to be reminded of the wages of armed conflict or the wounds that remain. It is in striking this balance that Spielberg and War Horse achieve critical distinction.

Of course most of the movie’s run time is devoted to Joey who has the uncanny ability of bringing out the best of any character (whether British, French or German) that dares to get close to him. All it takes is a moment gazing into its big soulful eyes or stroking that silky mane and any human is willing to risk everything to do the right thing, and far too often, through heavy-handed and overly-plotted means, these incidental figures pay dearly and tragically. It is worth asking if Spielberg blames us, Man and our obviously inhuman nature, for the harm inflicted on noble beasts and our own young. He gives us examples of Albert and Joey driving themselves past their limits to plow the field to save the family farm that his father, the adult, has been unable to maintain. And then, when Joey heads off into battle, he races heedlessly forward, at the behest of one master or another into the barbed wire and cannon fire, for what purpose? What purpose indeed, if not to serve as an example, one that might, if we’re paying careful attention, save our souls.

If only all animals had this kind of effect on humanity and Spielberg had the time to tell all of those stories, but he’s only got time, thankfully, for this one tale, and truth be told, I’m not sure he’s interested in browbeating audiences with such moral lecturing. He doesn’t care enough to teach lessons, his last stab at that may have been Schindler’s List. Spielberg wants to entertain, to show us a good time as we gather together in dark theaters. And it is at this task that he fails to completely entrance us with this well-worn magic and neither the bludgeoning action or a stellar cast featuring the best British actors in a crowd-pleasing romp this side of Harry Potter (David Thewlis, Emily Watson and Tom Hiddleston) can save War Horse from galloping off into the rosy glow of tired melodrama. (tt stern-enzi)