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A closer in the Oscar race?; Steven Spielberg's epic family film, 'War Horse,' looks like a contender for Best Picture

Absurd creatures, horses.

So big, so beautiful, so fast and so powerful. And yet so badly designed by nature.

Those massive, muscular bodies are clearly too big for those delicate legs, no matter how prodigious their feats of power and velocity can be. Horses' legs seem to be calamities waiting to happen. And when they do, there is so little their human owners can really do about it. One leg beyond repair condemns them.

It took me a long life to come around about horses. I spent years thinking of them as willful, overprivileged dung machines that people bet on. No more. I see the extraordinary nobility now.

Which is one reason why I think Steven Spielberg's "War Horse" is one of the great movies of 2011 and quite possibly the film Oscar voters will be most comfortable voting for as Best Picture of the Year. "War Horse" began life as a children's book by Michael Morpurgo, but it really blew people away when Nick Stafford's play found phenomenally ingenious and stylized ways to suggest horses onstage.

What it is now, in literal movie form full of CGI, is probably the greatest boy-and-his-horse movie ever made. And that is by no means a skinny, undernourished little category in movie history. Think, to name just one, of Carroll Ballard's beautiful "The Black Stallion."

Because it begins on a hardscrabble Irish farm surrounded by verdant landscaping and maintained by a drunk, his long-suffering wife and a sensitive teenage son, the movie, at first, seems to be screaming "JOHN FORD" and "THE QUIET MAN" at us. But by the time it's over, its episodic structure has given us a lot more to remember about why people love movies than just John Ford "pictures."

But that is indeed what will happen to you at "War Horse." If you have, for any reason, fallen out of love with the movies, Spielberg will remind you in "War Horse" why you once felt the way you did. And if your cheeks aren't damp and your nose isn't a little snuffly at the end, you may be suffering a lymphatic imbalance somewhere and your friends and neighbors would probably be grateful if you visited an endocrinologist.

This epic isn't short, that's for sure. It clocks in at almost two and a half hours. And it's an episodic epic, to boot, perfectly befitting a movie where we follow the odyssey of a horse named Joey through World War I, from that Irish farm, to the end of the cavalry in 1914 France, to pulling impossibly heavy armament up steep hills, to a near-idyll on a French farm, right up to the barbed wire and human slaughter of the Somme in 1918.

Believe me, you won't have to know a single thing about World War I to be completely absorbed in the movie and hugely moved by it. but if you do, it will help keep the chronology straight.

I'm not sure you could make a more perfect family movie. The only catch is an old one for Spielberg movies (think "Poltergeist"). He was the man responsible for the PG-13 rating in the first place, and there's no question that the man who made "Schindler's List" and the D-Day nightmare slaughter of "Saving Private Ryan" is not going to want to present a sanitized and blood-drained World War I.

No, "War Horse" isn't as powerful and horrific as either of his great World War II films, but the number of men mowed down by bullets on camera is large and the sight of a plain of battle covered with dead horses is not one that anyone should be rushing to show children of the most tender age.

But there is something enormously satisfying to all ages about the fantasy of the most brutal combatants suddenly coming to a momentary, entirely unplanned armistice to free a courageous and spirited and beautiful animal enmeshed in flesh-rending barbed wire at the front.

Obviously, CGI has been a savior to Spielberg. It enabled him to show us animals that almost seem to act (Joey's eyes are endlessly expressive, even at times tragic) and whose moments of acute danger are quite beyond what any animal protection watchdog group would allow real animals to suffer for the sake of entertainment.

"War Horse" is not only one of 2011's best, it is one of Spielberg's best.

After all these years, that's very high praise indeed.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com

***

War Horse

4 stars (out of 4)

Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, David Thewlis and Peter Mullan in Steven Spielberg's epic film based on the children's book and play about a boy and his horse separated by the First World War.

Rated PG-13 for some strong wartime violence, 146 minutes, opening today.