What a great relief and comfort it is that a significant portion (though not a majority so far) of the elite critics are giving War Horse the slapdown that it deserves.
The Playlist‘s Todd Gilchrist says Steven Spielberg‘s film “comes to us overloaded with nostalgia [and] a joylessly persistent sense of nobility…Spielberg dials up the sentimentality to almost unbearable levels [as] War Horse is the type of film for which the term ‘Oscar bait’ was invented, precisely because it feels like there’s no motivation for it to exist except to win awards.”
And Variety‘s Justin Chang says it’s “beautifully composed” but “falls short of the sustained narrative involvement and emotional drive its resolutely old-fashioned storytelling demands.”
And yet it’s ironic that the barbed-wire scene has drawn oddly divergent opinions from Hollywood Reporter critic Todd McCarthy and Box Office‘s Amy Nicholson. McCarthy’s review is mildly approving (or at least forgiving) but he finds the barbed-wire scene problematic, and yet Nicholson praises it in the midst of an otherwise blistering pan.
“The best ten minutes of the movie are pure theater,” Nicholson says, “in an eerie stretch when two enemy soldiers meet in No Man’s Land for a horse rescue operation. If you can forgive that amidst this mass slaughter of man and beast, the entire front takes a time-out to save one living thing, the scene is a masterpiece of hushed tension and bleak humor. And tellingly, it’s the one scene in the movie that doesn’t announce how you should feel.”
And yet McCarthy notes that “when Albert and a German youngster recklessly venture out into No Man’s Land to try to save Joey, who has entangled himself in barbed wire, the essential realism of the cinema begins to show up the symbolic artificiality and essential implausibility of the young men’s private detente.
“Onstage, the barbed wire incident is properly appalling emotionally and morally, but decidedly abstracted due to the dramatic lighting and virtuoso puppetry; onscreen, the reaction is more, ‘oh, poor horse, and why can’t warring nations get along just as these two fellows do?'”
McCarthy adds that “what follows next runs even deeper into audience-pleasing wish-fulfillment and sentimentality, topped by a grandly phoney ending that will set many tears flowing but feels overweening artificial, partly because of the Gone With the Wind-style colored lighting in which it’s bathed.Along with the universal thematic notes, the eager-to-please elements assert themselves increasingly as the film marches forward; neither aspect was necessary to stress.”