In his review in the New York Times, Stephen Holden called the film "visually ravishing" and added, "[it] is so gorgeous that its beauty distracts from the anguish it reveals . . . Every shot . . . has the polish of a richly hued, impeccably composed illustration . . . When individual children, some in tears, tell their stories while gazing directly into the camera, the shots seem posed and their remarks possibly rehearsed. The production notes explain that the children felt more comfortable telling their stories directly to the camera than to an interviewer, but you still have an uneasy sense of being manipulated . . . Having voiced these qualms, let me say that War/Dance, in spite of its slickness, is an honorable, sometimes inspiring exploration of the primal healing power of music and dance in an African tribal culture . . . The film draws out the suspense as best it can until the inevitable African-style American Idol moment. If that finale is genuinely exhilarating, you are still uncomfortably aware that this ecstatic conclusion doesn't mean the end of the strife or the refugees' troubles. It is a blip of light on a dark canvas."
Kenneth Tutan of the Los Angeles Times said, "To make a memorable documentary . . . that can't be forgotten once seen, you have to be more than gifted, you need an instinct for an unusual story and, frankly, you must have luck on your side. War/Dance . . . has all that and more . . . [it] is as irresistible as the rhythms of African music on its soundtrack."
In Variety, John Anderson called the film "well-intentioned but a victim of its own high cinematic values" and added, "The young black faces are too beautiful, the landscapes too pretty, and the personal stories of slaughter too scripted . . . The formal devices of the film, and the lack of spontaneity in the children's words, do little to sell the message of the movie . . . While the pic may be targeting Westerners who want to feel less awful about genocide and global negligence, it's hard to imagine War/Dance appealing to that crowd - or any other."
Rachel Howard of the San Francisco Chronicle said, "Visually, the film is anything but gritty, and some might say the cinematic beauty - and the children's controlled, likely coached interviews - glosses reality. But the tension of a brutality that can hardly be imagined let alone depicted, and the dignity of these precociously adult children as they must press on with their lives with little room for mourning or self-pity, is the point. The climactic trip to the competition offers an uplift that feels more like relief than triumph after the film's most disturbing tales."
In The Village Voice, Jim Ridley said, "The movie comes across as desperately, even irritatingly contrived, but I'd be lying if I didn't say it overcame my naturally complacent instincts — which would be to watch something (anything) else, to not get haunted by that closing litany of websites for global action."