"Steven Spielberg's War Horse, a deliberate throwback to a long-dormant style of unabashedly sentimental Hollywood filmmaking, is so completely what you would expect it to be that it comes back around and transcends its own clichés," suggests Slate's Dana Stevens. "In this 146-minute WWI epic, there are plucky tenant farmers and sneering, oppressive landlords. There are idealistic youths whose character is tested by the crucible of war. There is, my right hand to God, a comic-relief goose. Above all, there are horses, those animals whose kinetic grace seems intimately bound up with the history of cinema, from Eadweard Muybridge's racehorse photographs to John Ford's equine-crisscrossed landscapes. If you don't thrill to the site of a horse galloping across a green meadow with a beautiful young rider on its back — if you believe (wrongly) that National Velvet is just a sappy kids' movie — then you may not be susceptible to the curious power of War Horse."
"Allow your sped-up, modern, movie-going metabolism, accelerated by a diet of frantic digital confections — including Mr Spielberg's just-released Adventures of Tintin — to calm down a bit," advises AO Scott in the New York Times. "Suppress your instinctive impatience, quiet the snarky voice in your head and allow yourself to recall, or perhaps to discover, the deep pleasures of sincerity."
But Josef Braun finds War Horse to be an "astonishingly hollow, simultaneously mechanical and sentimental, faux-innocent, and thus secretly cynical. In short, it brings out the worst in Steven Spielberg, whose direction of actors has never been more leaden (he gets what I can only hope will be the worst, most strained and artificial performance the normally great Peter Mullan will ever give), whose camerawork has never felt more thoughtlessly money-coated (he seems to need a crane just to shoot inserts), and aesthetically droopy (there's a closing day-for-dusk shot that has to be seen to believe how ugly it is)…. Spielberg, so much more at home with lighter material (E.T., Catch Me If You Can), has gone to war once more, and this time he really got creamed."
"Based on Michael Morpugo's 1982 children's book, which was recently adapted into a smash hit London and Broadway play by Nick Stafford, War Horse arrives etched in the simple, bold strokes of a passed-down fable," writes Sean Burns in the Philadelphia Weekly. "Shortly before the outbreak of World War I, on a Southern English tenant farm owing so much to John Ford's blarney rustics that I half-expected Victor McLaglen to drop by, rascally drunkard Peter Mullan spends all the money his family set aside for a simple plowhorse on this magnificent title steed. Facing eviction by the nasty local landlord (David Thewlis, who probably should've grown out his moustache just a mite longer so he could twirl it for effect), Mullan's foursquare, comically noble young son Albert finds a way to train this unruly beast and attempts to save the family farm through a combination of compassion and 'inspirational' platitudes. Played by newcomer Jeremy Irvine, Albert has the lantern-jawed looks of Christopher Reeve — if Reeve was perpetually on the verge of tears…. I finally surrendered when Tom Hiddleston arrives as the forthright British officer taking ownership of Joey…. Saddled here with some seriously unfortunate dialogue, the young actor acquits himself marvelously and sets the table for this movie's recurring motif — folks in impossibly ugly situations rising to the occasion by reaching out to one another with simple acts of kindness, more often than not provoked by this strangely magnetic horse."
"Some commentators have jokingly called War Horse Spielberg's Au Hasard Balthazar, Robert Bresson's 1966 masterpiece about a mistreated donkey who changes hands over the course of his life in Northern France," writes Jaime N Christley in Slant. "But even if you don't balk at the idea of the names Spielberg and Bresson being spoken in the same breath (I've always thought very highly of Spielberg, but I'm not there yet), War Horse is, structurally, a closer cousin to Anthony Mann's Winchester '73. Mann's 1950 western, which was co-written by Borden Chase (Red River), uses a Winchester rifle instead of a pack animal, but its anecdotal script, stopping to spend time with each of the gun's owners while the object the movie pivots on fades into the scenery, shares with War Horse leisurely transitions and an anthologistic illustration of personalities and places at each vignette-sized point on its timeline. Bresson, as many writers have noted, looked for spiritual grace in the most misbegotten places and creatures, but, for all its pleasant side trips, War Horse begins as an archetypal Spielberg film, and ends like one, too: the affirmation of a preordained connection between two kindred souls, and the cathartic relief produced by a last-moment rescue."
More from Ty Burr (Boston Globe, 3/4), Richard Corliss (Time), Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, 3.5/4), Steve Erickson (Gay City News), Todd Gilchrist (Playlist, C+), Ben Kenigsberg (Time Out Chicago, 3/5), Peter Martin (Twitch), Paul Mazursky (Vanity Fair), Benjamin Mercer (L), Amy Nicholson (Box Office, 2/5), Keith Phipps (AV Club, A), Ray Pride (Newcity Film), Andrew Pulver (Guardian, 2/5), Jim Ridley (Nashville Scene) and Stephanie Zacharek (Movieline, 8.5/10).
Mark Feeney interviews Spielberg for the Boston Globe and Movieline's ST VanAirsdale talks with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski.
Update, 1/1: Along with Fernando F Croce's here in the Notebook, more new reviews come from Richard Brody (New Yorker), Bilge Ebiri, Michael Koresky (Reverse Shot) and Andrew O'Hehir (Salon).
Related: Spielberg @ 65. For news and tips throughout the day every day, follow @thedailyMUBI on Twitter and/or the RSS feed.