Is it a good or bad thing when an animal out acts a human cast? Joey, aka War Horse, is the eponymous photogenic thoroughbred at the heart of Steven Spielberg’s latest glossily produced middle of the road fare – essentially a collection of seven or eight handsomely shot World War I short films stuck together with a bit of salt lick.

Adapted from a best-selling novel and a long-running Broadway production, which trots onto Australian stages in 2012, War Horse is one of those films in which everybody across Europe speaks very good English, with slightly coloured accents, and the destruction and devastation of warfare is viewed through a nostalgic prism in which valour and feats of courage leave a far greater impression than the cold reality of blood-stained mud and limb-strewn landscapes.

Joey is Red Dog-ian in his ability to win friends in the many and varied environments the film plonks him in, from his introductory scene in which he is purchased by a dopey struggling Devonshire farmer (Peter Mullan) who engages in a senseless bidding war with a smug landlord (David Thewlis). The farmer’s son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) forges an instant connection with Joey and takes on the seemingly impossible task of ploughing a seemingly un-ploughable field in the hope enough turnips will grow to pay the rent. Against all odds, of course, with rain pelting down and the townspeople gathered in droves, looking on and sneering, Joey comes good, saves the farm in a yee-haw! spot of good ol’ fashion inspiration and there endeth the story.

The first story. There’s seven or so left, and with 146 minutes on the saddle Spielberg is in no rush to cross the finishing line, which is eventually marked by a close-up shot of Joey’s heart-melting equine face longingly poised in front of a crimson sunset. Yeah, this horse can act, and somewhere in the world there’s a picture just like this hanging on somebody’s wall.

Joey’s ventures across Europe – bolting, moseying, making new pals, evading bombs and bullets, and grappling with his one flaw: he (like white men, as they say) can’t jump – are lovingly photographed with a pleasant old fashionism, as if the film ought to have been made decades ago. Spielberg is a tremendously accomplished visual filmmaker, with more bona fides on his belt to bother to mention, but his propensity to slip into the role of a dairy maker continues to plague his work, the cheese-a-rific opening and closing moments of the otherwise tremendous Saving Private Ryan still the devastating example. There are moments of cheesiness in War Horse that stand out like a block of brie the size of a car battery, even by Spielberg’s standards, but, evoking a musty photo album feel of yesteryear thematically and aesthetically, he has a pass card of sorts.

There’s no doubting the emotional connection forged between the audience and the majestic star of the show; a description of such a talented acting upstart would usually be marked by words like “watch this face,” but given the circumstances that would be tantamount to horseplay. Also, kudos to Spielberg for resisting what must have been an almighty temptation: there are no Free Willy moments in which Joey leaps to freedom. But if critics are being entirely honest, somewhere inside us, lurking in the dark, guilty, dairy-dampened chambers of our minds, a part of us probably wanted one.

War Horse’s Australian theatrical release date: December 26, 2011. 

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey