The vast scope required for certain film projects, such as this harrowing World War I epic, has never intimidated Oscar-winning director Steven Spielberg. In fact, it seems to invigorate him.
The acclaimed auteur has taken on daunting subjects with tremendous aplomb -- subjects lesser filmmakers would surely shy away from. He used an ocean's murky depths to terrify viewers in "Jaws" (1975), made archeology a springboard for adventure in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981), transported aliens to Earth in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977), brought dinosaurs back to life in "Jurassic Park" (1993) and conquered war in "Saving Private Ryan" (1998).
Spielberg works his cinematic magic again in the ambitious and poignant "War Horse." Young Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) bonds with a spirited horse his father brings home to plough the harsh land outside the family farm. Albert dubs the horse Joey and gets to work on training the clever animal while his parents wrestle with ways to pay their callous landlord. The farm's financial woes force Albert's distressed dad to sell Joey to the British Army at the onset of World War I, thus beginning a long and arduous journey for the horse.
The unpredictable nature of war is evident as Joey gallops from one dangerous situation to the next. His odyssey brings him in contact with a host of varied caretakers, including a noble British officer (Tom Hiddleston), a pair of German brothers (David Kross and Leonhard Carow), an ailing girl and her thoughtful grandfather (Celine Buckens and Niels Arestrup), and even an animal-loving German soldier (Nicolas Bro). Joey's courage rivals even that of the bravest men on the battlefield as he proves his mettle time and again.
The production values here are exemplary, from the breathtaking cinematography by frequent Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski ("Minority Report," "Saving Private Ryan") to the stitch-perfect costume design by Joanna Johnston ("Valkyrie"). The human actors are all somewhat secondary as Joey is the picture's clear protagonist, but Arestrup ("The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," "A Prophet") serves up an impressive performance. Hiddleston ("Thor"), too, shines with limited screen time and is an actor worth tracking after a breakout year. (Hiddleston also appears in the Woody Allen charmer "Midnight in Paris.")
An absence of blood and gore dilutes the otherwise realistic war scenes, though the lack of graphic violence is necessary for family-friendly viewing. Powerful moments abound, from two opposing soldiers setting aside their differences to rescue a wounded Joey to Joey's own demonstrable courage in helping a fellow horse. And although the picture's pacing starts off slowly, it quickly hits its stride.
Expect "War Horse," one of the year's best, to earn some accolades at the Academy Awards in February. Oscar always pays attention when Spielberg is in the saddle.