Steven Spielberg’s War Horse is best as a war story, with the horse plot falling into the fantasy more than family genre. With a boy named Albert (Jeremy Irvine) and his horse named Joey at the center after a cliched, anti-capitalist set-up in which an evil businessman improbably plots to destroy an entire family and its farm, horse Joey is sold to the British cavalry and sent to the trenches of World War One. The rest of War Horse is a series of vignettes, much like the war stories of the classic animal adventure, Lassie Come Home, and most of them are thrilling, especially the first one, which should have lasted longer. With striking photography, brilliant transitions and some good writing, the tale of a horse during war (based on the stage play) holds promise, and it is good to see overrated Mr. Spielberg return to coherent cinematic adventures after a string of dismal pictures (The Terminal, Munich, War of the Worlds).

“It’s good to be proud when you’ve done something good,” Albert’s long-suffering mother (Emily Watson) tells him in one of the film’s best lines. And the boy, who of course becomes a man, has accomplished quite a bit by the time Joey is on his way to fight the Germans. But with a drunken, Boer Wars veteran father (Peter Mullan) who spends money he doesn’t have and a sadistic property owner who’s simply a straw man to hackneyed save-the-farm fare, Albert’s story lacks sympathy and substance. One’s first emotional investment comes after the start of the horrific waste of life known as the first world war. Joey, a strong, beautiful thoroughbred whose time with Albert may save his life, knows his limits and, as the epic turns toward the French and the Germans, and with Steven Schindler’s List Spielberg at the helm there are rarely any bad Germans, only bad businessmen, his horsepower is tested to a devastatingly graphic extent. War Horse is not for the squeamish, and viewers should know that there are scenes of brutality against animals, though they may be computer-generated.

Much of War Horse is stunning to watch, and its scenes of boys and men at war are particularly affecting, with great performances by Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston as British cavalry officers. A story about an old Frenchman and his granddaughter is also involving, though it wraps too neatly and loops back into other storylines that are too pat. While several themes resonate, the script is uneven and the director is intent on expressing pacifism at the expense of plot development. The result is that when the climax comes, it is simply fantastic and the epilogue falls flat. But War Horse contains strokes of larger-than-life romanticist moviemaking and on balance it is superior to Mr. Spielberg’s last several movies combined. As Emily Watson’s mother says, “I might hate you more, but I’ll never love you less.” Though instilled with his usual blend of faith, horror and good Germans, certain scenes ride with grace and grandeur as only Steven Spielberg can render them.