Though based partly on a children's novel, Steven Spielberg's "War Horse" is not entirely a children's movie. It does star a boy and a horse, and it has many moments of warmth, humor and reassuring corn. But "War Horse" is also a film about the human animal and its capacity for violence and cruelty. You can always depend on Spielberg to land on the side of optimism, of course, just as you know he'll put you through the wringer to get there.
The story is simple: In rural Devon, England, a young farm boy, Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine, a suitably fresh-faced newcomer), makes fast friends with a spirited horse named Joey. But when England enters the Great War in 1914, Albert's drunken father, Ted (Peter Mullan), sells the animal to the cavalry. Ted and his wife (Emily Watson) soon lose their son, as well: Albert enlists, determined to find his friend.
What follows is a series of vignettes in which Joey sees the war from nearly every angle: He'll gallop under the noble Captain Nicholls (a deeply moving Tom Hiddleston), haul artillery for the Germans, brighten the days of an orphaned French girl (Celine Buckens) and end up stranded between sides in No Man's Land -- the story's most resonant and symbolic chapter. For better and sometimes for worse, Joey ultimately reflects the humanity around him.
"War Horse" is also based on the still-running, Tony-winning stage play, rightly acclaimed for its life-size horse puppets and stark, harrowing visuals. Spielberg goes more for a classic Western, with dramatic lighting and russet-colored skies (the cinematographer is his longtime collaborator Janusz Kaminski). The material sometimes feels oversugared, though it's also guaranteed to raise a lump in your throat.
PLOT A young British boy signs up for WWI to search for his beloved horse. RATING PG-13 (intense scenes and violence)
PLAYING AT Area theaters, starting Sunday
BOTTOM LINE Equal parts profound and corny, but always emotionally powerful and beautiful to look at. Parents should take the PG-13 rating seriously.