Dec. 22, 2011 at 1:21 PM ET
Just the two words of the title may scare some potential moviegoers away. "War Horse" isn't a neutral title like "Secretariat," it hints to animal lovers that the beautiful creature seen in the trailers is going to be shot at, terrified, manhandled and might not survive.
Spoiler alert: This is a PG-13, family friendly, Steven Spielberg movie, and animal lovers can breathe easy. "War Horse" is based on a book for 8-year-olds, and as befits that, the horse, Joey (Joey? Yes, Joey,) is carefully protected. Even battle-hardened army men go out of their way to keep him safe.
Before he's a war horse, Joey belongs to a teenage farmboy named Albert (Jeremy Irvine), whose prideful drunk of a father (Peter Mullan) bought him for more money than he can afford. When World War I breaks out, Joey is sold to the British army.
"Wherever you go, I will find you. I will bring you home," a desperate Albert vows. Sure, it's corny, but if you're not a little choked up by the end of this movie, you might not be human.
In a twist that may surprise those unfamliar with the book or stage play, Joey bounces from army to army, military to civilian, his freakish luck and apparently irresistible charm keeping him safe.
In one memorable scene, both sides actually call a halt to fighting to rescue Joey from a tangle of barbed wire, and a German soldier with a capital command of English helps a Brit set the horse free. The message is clear if simplistic: If they can come together and work toward a common goal to aid a suffering creature, why are they trying to kill each other?
"War Horse" is breathtakingly shot, with some scenes so over-the-top lovely with flaming skies and velvety pastures that you're acutely aware you're watching a movie. Spielberg gets his details right, of course -- from music to uniforms to the muddy horror of the trenches, the ruin of landscapes and lives that the war creates.
This film isn't really about great acting performances, but Irvine, Mullan, Emily Watson as Albert's mom, and the rest of the cast all do fine, with performances as earnest as the material.
This is a perfect family film, just in time for the holiday break. Older kids will enjoy it but their parents will too. It's touching and heartwrenching, thrilling and cathartic.
The horse may be the star, but in the end, "War Horse" is an undeniably human story.