W.C. Fields was famously quoted as saying, “Never work with animals or children.” Good thing Steven Spielberg didn’t listen. From E.T. to Hook to War of the Worlds, Spielberg has never shied from casting children, and while his work with creatures has generally been largely limited to mechanical sharks and CG dinosaurs, War Horse shows he can do animals just as well, too.

Based on the 1982 children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo and the subsequent stage play now playing in New York and London, War Horse tells the story of British teenager Albert Naracott (newcomer Jeremy Irvine) and his colt Joey on the eve of World War I.

After Albert’s pub-happy father buys the horse at auction (for way more than it’s worth), it falls on the his son to break and train Joey to work the family farm. A vicious storm, however, destroys the harvest, and Albert’s dad is forced to sell Joey to the Army to make ends meet.

And so begins the saga of the young horse and his travails across Europe. Joey bounces from one owner to the next– the British cavalry, German soldiers, a young French girl and her grandfather– and at each step along the way, Joey becomes more and more of a character in his own right, entirely sympathetic and as full of personality as a four-legged star can be.

Spielberg, it seems, has reclaimed some of the mojo he had when he was directing epics like Saving Private Ryan and Empire of the Sun, and while War Horse pales when matched with those, it’s still terrifically moving.

What keeps War Horse from unqualified greatness, though, is that Spielberg tries a little too hard to play to all audiences. While at one point a soldier’s execution is tastefully hidden from our view by a well-timed windmill blade, not too much later we’re thrown head-first into the horrors of war with an extended battle sequence in a barbed-wire-covered, muddy French field. The result is an almost jarring mood-shift from scene to scene; sometimes War Horse is a light-hearted family film, then within moments we are harshly reminded of the ‘war’ in the movie’s title.

And what’s happened to composer John Williams? He hasn’t composed a score this overbaked since 1992’s Far and Away.

As for the stars of the show, though, Irvine makes his film debut with a solid performance, particularly since almost all his scenes involve playing opposite a very large, non-verbal co-star. And Emily Watson and Peter Mullan are likewise great as Albert’s parents, each smartly reining in performances that could have quickly veered into melodrama.

But the real star of the show is Joey (or, rather, the 14 horses that were reportedly used for the part), and by the end of War Horse, you may end up feeling you care for him more than some two-legged people in your own life.

Even W.C. Fields may have come around.

4/5 stars