Take friendship across species, add overcoming adversity (especially where the small man triumphs over a bigger system), throw in a fresh face and experienced animal actors and you've got entertainment for all ages. Mix in sweeping vistas and a rousing score, make it all believable and you've got the film world's holy grail — a potential critical and commercial darling.
Steven Spielberg's War Horse ticks all these boxes. Nominated for six Oscar awards, including best film, the film stars British actor Jeremy Irvine as the young Albert who develops a relationship with a horse before the advent of the First World War.
The story wastes no time creating suspense — Albert's father Ted (an endearing performance by Peter Mullan) seemingly stupidly goes into debt to buy the horse ill-fitted to plough the family's fields, to the chagrin of his wife, Rose (a role made for Emily Watson).
When the war breaks out, Joey the horse is sold into service and through a series of events goes from British to German to French hands before ending up with the German army. Needless to say, Albert sets off in pursuit.
This is where Spielberg excels. Tracking man and horse from the idyllic English countryside to the trenches, he subtly questions the ideology of war and acts of war and suggests a suspension of the notion of right and wrong. Through strong characterisation, he gets the viewer emotionally invested in the well-being of both man and beast.
The contrast between "home" and "away" couldn't be stronger, and this is stressed without venturing into the realm of the caricature. The filmmakers don't shy away from the ravages of war, but with a deft hand ensure even the horrific isn't too horrific.
One of the premiere film composers of our time and frequent Spielberg collaborator John Williams' score is simply masterful. He delivers some of his most playful music for the carefree pre-war days of Albert training Joey, goes very dark and dramatic for the ominous war sequences and doesn't pull his punches for emotionally charged scenes. He unapologetically tugs at the heart strings where needed, successfully adding to Spielberg's storytelling.
While the ending is at times predictable, this doesn't detract from one's enjoyment of the film, for its greatest strength lies in how the story is told.
War Horse manages to offer something for everyone. Like Martin Scorsese's Hugo, its rival at the Oscars, it's a children's film that isn't a children's film.
But, was Spielberg snubbed in the best director category at the upcoming Academy Awards? No. This isn't among his best work. It isn't a Schindler's List or a Saving Private Ryan — both Best Director winners, both coincidentally(?) also set in war — but it more than holds its own.
Hollywood can do a lot worse with war-based family entertainment. And it has. Better? Not likely.