It's button-pushing time.
Do you like E.T.? Gone With the Wind? The Black Stallion? The Color Purple? Saving Private Ryan? Lassie? Sure you do. You like the greatest hits. And Steven Spielberg knows it. So here's a story about a boy and his horse that features a troubled family, intense animal bonding, vintage color saturation, a heroic horse, the pain of separation, the brotherhood of man, gorgeously wholesome poverty, valiant war heroism and an animal that finds its way back home come hell or high water or barbed wire fence. It's epic moviemaking by the numbers, but nobody counts off those numbers like Spielberg.
Over the past few decades, Spielberg has behaved like a man fully confident in his ability to snowboard down the steepest slope of Schmaltz Mountain without wiping out. That he has wiped out more than once is proof of his nerve. He gets back up, says, "I meant to do that," and keeps going. So this story -- in which a beautiful, half-thoroughbred horse named Joey is separated from his British teenage owner (Jeremy Irvine) and tossed around the European continent as World War I rages on -- is a fusion of every trick the director knows. If he can shake it, make it glow, reel you in and then stop your heart before breaking it, then he's doing the job you paid him to do with the price of your ticket.
This is not a movie about thought. It won't tease your brain with the deeper questions of existence. It's about dumb feeling. And along the path toward this weepy brother and horse reunion those dumb feelings are spread thick like jam on bread. Parents are healed, lives are imperiled, goodness is rewarded, the slaughter of combat takes a breather, humanity is validated and belief in the impossible is never questioned for longer than it takes the believer to flash his sincerely wet eyes at the camera.
So there's valid reason to dislike it. Nobody would blame you. Manipulation this ostentatious can rub a lot of people the wrong way. And when the only push forward is into a forced warm bath of gentle reassurance that everything is going to be all right, that can seem phony. At its core, it probably is. But there are moments in life when you just give in and let the machine do its job; you let the warm bath wash over you. You don't care that what you're indulging in is simplistic or even thoughtless. You just want to feel it the way you're told to. You want to see the boy and horse he loves, bruised but unbroken, clinging to one another in the fake, orange sunset. You want the happy ending. There aren't enough of those in life. Take this one.