War Horse

No talking ponies, animated urchins or CGI, just an old-fashioned epic that sees Spielberg back on form

The past several years have seen a mixed bag from director Steven Spielberg. There has been some quality fare (Munich), some rubbish (the dire Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), as well as the odd pet project like The Adventures of Tintin, which haven't garnered the audiences that Spielberg may have expected.

So it's pleasing to report that there are no naff aliens or computerised urchins in War Horse. The book-to-stage-to-screen adaptation is the director's most emotionally satisfying work since Saving Private Ryan – and contains some of cinema's most potent war scenes since that movie, too.

War Horse was published in 1982 by English children's author, Michael Morpurgo, and brought back to public attention in recent years thanks to Nick Stafford's wildly successful theatrical version, featuring stunning life-sized horse puppets by the Handspring Puppet Company. It is a ripping yarn set before and during World War I.

Essentially the tale of Joey, a thoroughbred horse sent to serve on the Western Front, the nominal hero is Albert Narracott, a naive but gritty Devon farm boy who trains the steed from a colt and never gives up hope that they will one day be reunited.

In Spielberg's film, Narracott is played by the likeable British actor, Jeremy Irvine. The 21-year-old newbie is surrounded by a coterie of UK stars, all giving solid performances as the story wends from pastoral England to war-torn France and back.

Peter Mullan and Emily Watson play Albert's beleaguered parents, and David Thewlis their dastardly landlord, while the British Army's ranks are swollen by Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Liam Cunningham and Eddie Marsan as a variety of generally decent eggs. Representing Northern Ireland, Omagh's Gerard McSorley has a small but important role as an auctioneer.

Cinematically, it's splendid stuff, with numerous impressive camera flourishes. None of it is going to eclipse the dolly zoom in Jaws, but it shows Spielberg can still have fun with the form. The director's regular cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski – whose work is usually grim and murky – also excels himself here with some lush visuals.

The most heartening thing about War Horse is the decision to use real animals for almost all of the running time, with supplementary animatronics used in just one sequence. Like Uggie, the scene-stealing Jack Russell in The Artist, War Horse's animal actors – or, at the very least, their trainers – should be up for an award.

The same goes for the production designer Rick Carter for his chilling recreation of the Somme: trenches, no man's land, rain, rats and all.

Of course, in such a sprawling project, there are going to be flaws. Disregarding a couple of continuity errors that should keep Robert Webb in material, here the flaws are mostly related to pacing. After spending so much time with the Narracotts at the start of the movie, the second and third acts feel rushed, as if Spielberg were already thinking about his next project.

Too many interesting characters are carefully introduced, only to be be sidetracked as Joey's adventure progresses. It would have been nice to see more of Niels Arestrup's genial French grandfather, for example, or David Kross and Leonard Carow's youthful German soldiers.

Still, if you buy into Spielberg's unflinchingly sentimental approach, there is much to enjoy in War Horse. Put any fears of talking ponies out of your head. Screenwriters Lee Hall and Richard Curtis stick closer to the stage incarnation than to Morpurgo's book. This is an entertaining, old-fashioned epic that should entertain adults fed up with 3D and CGI, just as much as it will kids raised on the stuff.