'War Horse' needs reining in just a little

Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) joyfully rides atop his beloved horse, Joey in “War Horse,” director Steven Spielberg’s epic adventure.

Just in time for family-friendly holiday feel-goodery is Steven Spielberg's sweeping, historical epic "War Horse."

It's a story that began life as a children's book by Michael Morpurgo, then made its way to the London and New York stages to great acclaim featuring inventive puppetry, and arrives in theaters with all the grandeur a master filmmaker can conjure. "War Horse" features a strong cast and the sort of impeccable production values you would expect from Spielberg -- that trademark, mystical lighting, the product of his longtime collaboration with Oscar-winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski.

And yet it's overlong, painfully earnest and sometimes even hokey. Clearly, Spielberg intended "War Horse" as a throwback, an homage to good, old-fashioned, heartrending storytelling, full of recognizable types and uplifting themes. The skies are so impossibly colorful in such a retro way, they look like hand-painted backdrops on a soundstage. And the dialogue is so frequently on-the-nose and repetitive, it might just make you cringe. Yes, the horse is remarkable -- of course he is -- that's why they made a movie about him. That should have been obvious to us through the action alone, yet the script (from Lee Hall and Richard Curtis) feels the need to tell us again and again that he is a "remarkable" horse.

The majestic Joey comes into the lives of a struggling British farming family just before World War I. The alcoholic father (Peter Mullan) buys him at auction, even though he knows he can't afford him; the long-suffering mother (Emily Watson) insists he return him and get the family's money back. But plucky teenager Albert (Jeremy Irvine) begs to keep him and promises to train him. Cue the montage.

Although Joey is clearly a spectacular creature, the father ends up selling him to the British cavalry because the family needs the money. Albert is devastated and swears they'll meet again; the conscientious captain (Tom Hiddleston), who immediately recognizes Joey's greatness and chooses him as his own mount, promises to take good care of him until then.

Joey, meanwhile, thrives once more in this new setting on the front lines. And these moments are some of the film's best -- the ones where the Spielberg of "Saving Private Ryan" comes shining through.