Trigger, Black Beauty, Silver, Champion, Dobbin from Rentaghost – just a number of fine actors from the equine community that have given their all over the years on the screen. With the help of a certain Steven Spielberg, Joey can be added to that illustrious list.
Originally a children's book released in 1982 by Michael Morpurgo, it then went on to have a successful run as a stage play in 2007. And although initially involved in this project in a producing capacity, Spielberg decided to pick up the directing reins after reading the first draft written by Richard Curtis of Blackadder, Four Weddings and a Funeral and Comic Relief fame.
Although there is talk of war on the way, life still goes on for a small rural community in Devon. The most pressing concern for Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) is to buy a horse to plough his field. But when he attends a local auction, his pride gets the better of him and he ends up paying far more than he can afford – bidding against his landlord Lyons (David Thewlis) no less, in the process – for a thoroughbred foal that is pretty useless for ploughing.
With the help of his son Albert (Jeremy Irvine) though, who also gives the horse the name Joey, he trains the animal in the ways of field ploughing. It needs to get the job done too as Lyons is knocking on the door, wanting his rent to be paid.
With the family struggling as it is, the outbreak of the Great War makes matters a whole lot worse. Albert is too young to sign up, but Joey isn't. To help get them out of their financial hole, Ted sells the horse to the army to help with the war effort.
Joey soon finds himself far away from the safety of the fields of home, across the sea, truly in the thick of a hellish war.
For anyone unfamiliar with the source material, the fact that Spielberg signed on to direct this overtly family film may come as a surprise. Its first half could easily pass as a TV drama in similar vein to the BBC's Lark Rise to Candleford. It is cosy and comfortable Sunday afternoon material. The second half feels more like The Littlest Hobo – with a horse as substitute for the dog – as it wanders into the lives of others, touching them as it does on some emotional level. Both parts together equate to a charming tale of one man and his horse.
The fact is, thematically at least, this film has classic Spielberg all the way through it. The story itself isn't a million miles away from his own E.T., with a young man developing a strong bond with a creature that someone else wants to get their hands on (which could on one level be the army, or possibly war itself), that separates the pair. And if Joey had the ability to phone home, he probably would have done that too.
Spielberg also gets John Williams, unsurprisingly, on board to do the soundtrack; unlike their previous collaborations though, there's no memorable theme running throughout. It's probably one of the composer's more subtle scores, albeit one dipped in syrupy tones.
As far as Spielberg's directing goes, he doesn't really put a hoof wrong. There are some great performances from an eclectic cast, with the director proving yet again that he knows how to frame a shot.
But the biggest star is the horse himself. If he plays his cards right, he should get his agent to suggest Spielberg re-visit one of his classics with an update in mind: Jaws Vs Joey. It may not go down well with the War Horse crowd, but it may give his new found acting career legs.
The crux of the matter is, your enjoyment of it will probably depend on whether you're an animal lover or not. If you're the type to shed a tear whenever Lassie is in peril, then this sentimental journey is one that is likely to win you over. But if you're of the mind to think that the only thing horses are good for are glue, then you're likely to consider this a load of old pony.
It may well be Hollywood schmaltz done to the highest order, but if you do have a soft spot for animalkind, then you'll find War Horse a truly touching and tender experience.