The term "family film" is such a strange one. Not because families going to the movies together is such a curious idea -- it's a rite of the holidays, of bored rainy summer afternoons, of pizza-stuffed birthday parties. It's just that it's a term that's come to mean so much and thus so little. Surely Steven Spielberg's Tintin is a family film, with its cartoony brightness and ultimately victimless comicbook violence. But so too is Steven Spielberg's darker, far more serious War Horse, a new movie about the epic sweep of war that also tells a, to use that hoariest of words, heartwarming tale of a family. Somehow both of these pictures exist under the same umbrella, Tintin because of its pleasant pluck and excitement, War Horse because of its stirring and universal vitality.

Based on a popular young adult novel from the 1980s, War Horse tells a deceptively simple tale: A somewhat drunken farmer (Peter Mullan) living in the stony green idyll of Devon buys a gorgeous, if useless for a farm, horse at auction and brings him home to his disapproving wife (Emily Watson) and his thrilled teenage son (handsome newcomer Jeremy Irvine). Country boys way out in those parts don't have much in the way of entertainment, so a rambunctious colt with a spirited independence that the boy, Albert, can train proves grand excitement. There's an urgency to the taming of this beautiful beast, which Albert has named Joey, because rent is due on the little Weasley-esque farm and the mean landlord (David Thewlis), who'd also been bidding on the horse, is threatening eviction. So Albert must train Joey, against all odds, to plow a rocky field so crops can be sown and reaped. And if you can believe it, Steven Spielberg and his frequent cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, aided by John Williams' soaring yet plaintive score, make this feat of agricultural agony as stirring as some of the film's later war scenes. It grounds the film's main character, namely the horse, in a small and specific place. This is a horse from a hillside farm in Devon and he plowed a field once, took him all night but he did it. It gives the animal a rooted, earthy home and history that we, and he, can carry with him through the horrors of what happens to him next.

No, don't worry, family filmgoer. These are not Saving Private Ryan or Schindler's List horrors. They're not even the kiddie nightmares of various Indiana Jones deaths. Rather they're the implied, historical terrors of terrible yet oft-forgotten World War I (though between this and Downton Abbey, perhaps the Great War is trending). Despite Joey's heroic plowing performance, the family still needs money, so Albert's father marches the horse into town and sells him to an angelic, pond-eyed officer (Tom Hiddleston, with that odd gravitational pull of his) who promises a weepy Albert that he'll take good care of the horse and will return him upon war's end. And with that Joey is ushered out of his little pastoral home and into the booming, fire-swallowed landscape of 1914 Europe. We are not so nervous watching this as we are when we see human boys shipped off to war in movies, perhaps because the movie is called War Horse and what a ratty movie it would be if said war horse died unceremoniously, but also because Joey has such an elegant proudness about him, an air of invincibility. I'm not a moony type who's going to even attempt to suggest that any of the fourteen horses that play Joey are acting, but Spielberg knows how to film the animals, giving a movement that may be random a sudden and telling purpose; the muscles strain as he struggles and thus so do our hearts, the eyes reel and blacken as another circle of hell is descended into. And yet Joey holds fast. If we are this film's Dante, watching in shuddering awe as scenes of terror unfold around us, Joey is our slightly calmer Virgil. Largely stoic, only sometimes startled, always oddly knowing.

And what scenes he shows us! The clever device of this story is that Joey's experiences are used to show us a busy and hearteningly alive cross-section of the sprawling conflict. Spending most of our time in France, we watch as Joey changes hands over and over again, giving us glimpses of the English soldier's life, of common folk caught in the middle of the storm, and, on two refreshing (if, y'know, sad) occasions, of the simple humanity of the German soldiers, themselves scared young men merely trying to do what they're told. While each of these characters are certainly archetypes, the screenwriters Richard Curtis and Lee Hall (and the novel writer Michael Morpurgo) add just enough difference and shading to them that we don't mind seeing these familiar people again -- the doomed honorable man, the misguided deserters, the men from opposite sides who find a moment of peace and kinship amidst all the madness. The latter sequence is one of the film's strongest, as Joey plays both a passive and active part of it; the men have wandered out into No Man's Land in order to untangle the crying horse from barbed wire. He's both burden and bait, a dismaying symbol of all the suffering in the war and yet also providing an opportunity to show how it might all be stopped.

It probably goes without saying, these stories being what they are, that Albert eventually enters the fray himself and that sad things happen and that, spoiler alert for those unfamiliar with the simplest of tropes, horse and boy eventually reunite. The joyful, tear-blurred reunion is staged with such grace and perfect momentum that you almost want to applaud (some people did at the screening I saw). This is not Forrest and Jenny running across the reflecting pool to hug each other, this is not a swooping validation of a great romance, it is simply a mind-boggling connection to home made in a faraway place, a reminder of the smallness and occasional goodness of the world. The tale of the Miracle Horse spreads through the ranks and Joey, and Albert, become folk heroes for the men. There's one last hurdle to jump over, and then we're home.

Thematically this is not a complicated movie, it doesn't offer any political perspective on the war, it doesn't make too much commentary on the economics of rural England at the time (some are poor, some are rich, that's about it). Its ambitions seem squarely to be to tell a good and rousing and moving story and to tell it well, and gosh does War Horse do just that. (Which is why we put it on our list of the Best Movies of 2011.) It's not the kind of movie that us urban dwelling childless grownups are supposed to like -- it's sentimental and straightforward and Spielbergian in its magic-of-being-a-boy-ness -- and yet it's such a lovably polished product. There isn't even a faint whiff of ho-hum to the proceedings; Spielberg does not once take a lazy way out or give us half-hearted "I could do this blindfolded" showmanship. He seems fully invested in this tale and he being such a thorough and competent filmmaker, it becomes rather impossible for us not to become deeply invested as well. Yes I was an adult man by himself watching a movie about a kid and his horse, but damned if the movie hasn't stuck with me more than many other supposedly Important movies this year. (Martha Marcy what? We need to talk about who?) The film's themes are as big and broad as those Devonshire skies but my what lovely skies they are. This is the kind of family film (not for little, little ones obviously) that ennobles the genre. Like Hugo, it's wisely and carefully done work. But unlike that mechanical curio, War Horse beats with a true, tremendous heart.

*****

I'm afraid, however, that not all of god's creatures are faring so well. From the imperiled horses of the ruined Somme to the varied critters of sun-kissed California, we come to Cameron Crowe's We Bought a Zoo, another family film, but one that, unlike War Horse, is overcome by its own schmaltz. And it's too bad, because they really all are trying so hard.

At what point in a writer/director's career do we have to stop saying "Oh, a disappointment for Cameron Crowe," and start realizing that the exception is actually the rule and vice versa? Sure everyone loves Say Anything..., and certainly Singles and Almost Famous have their devoted appreciators, and of course Jerry Maguire struck some sort of mid-'90s male crisis chord, but the rest? Meaning approaching half of his current oeuvre? It's not so good. Vanilla Sky was an interesting but ultimately pointless misfire and Elizabethtown was an unholy disaster on par with the Battle of the Marne. And now, because what do you do when you've weathered storms of criticism and thus want to engender cheaply earned love, he's made a simpering family film. (See: Murphy, Eddie.) Though, to Crowe's credit, he at least doesn't seem interested in making an entirely conventional family film -- he still wants to tell the tale with his signature sideways articulateness.

You know Crowe-speak, right? The closest comparison might be James L. Brooks' writing when James L. Brooks' writing is at its worst. (see: Know, How Do You.) Meaning, his characters say things that sound interesting and clever and a bit idiosyncratic but then you stop think to about them and after a moment say, "But wait, what does that even mean?" In We Bought a Zoo, which is about a grieving widower (Matt Damon) who buys a zoo on a whim (this is somehow based on a true story) to cheer up his two kids (a sullen artist teen played with almost embarrassing earnestness by Colin Ford and a sunshiny future manic pixie played by Maggie Elizabeth Jones), Crowe has Damon's Benjamin say things like "I'm trying to give the kids an authentic American experience" and "All you need is twenty seconds of insane courage and I promise you: Something great will come of it." And this stuff sounds good, right? Until you think, wait what? What is so "authentically American" about buying some weird old zoo? That sounds rather inauthentic to me, especially considering the real-life story happened in England. And, hold up, I thought this movie was about the power of stick-to-itive-ess and accomplishment from hard work over time, but now you're saying it all comes down to twenty seconds? What, the twenty seconds you spent signing the zoo papers? Stop speaking in corny platitude riddles, man! Just give me the life lessons! It's classic pleased-with-himself Crowe. (To be fair, I suppose the co-writer Aline Brosh McKenna might be partially to blame for the script's frequent grand statements that drop like a wrench falling down the stairs. Brosh McKenna, who already has 27 Dresses and I Don't Know How She Does It under her belt, should maybe seek tutelage from a different auteur lest she disappear faster than one's bank account after they buy a zoo.)

This is not to say that the film is all bad. Playing a dedicated young zookeeper, Scarlett Johansson lends the film an easy naturalism that it would be nice to see more of from her. Here she's a non-seductress adult whose motivations are about saving animals rather than veering a dedicated man off course with her sexual wares. And who, honestly, can dislike Matt Damon in basically anything? He just seems like such a mensch, and perhaps his greatest kindness in this film is treating it with the same respect as he has many of his more serious pictures. I liked also that he and Crowe have come up with a more believable dad character than often seen in something this otherwise treacly -- Benjamin gets mad at his petulant son, there is yelling and slamming of doors, he does not back down in the face of the kid's sneeriness. It's a nice, realistic touch that I wish had been applied to the rest of the film, which primarily features a mixtape of Crowe-approved songs, cute shots of animals being cute, and, in a bizarrely atonal series of scenes, John Michael Higgins' as a prissy zoo inspector. (That's your main conflict right there, btw.) The film veers wildly from low-to-the-ground light domestic drama to inspire-happy cheesefest to limp comedy sometimes within a single scene. It's a strange jumble of a movie, perhaps made strangest by the fact that I didn't hate it. There's enough genuineness in there to keep you engaged for a couple hours, and eventually the meepy moans of the music and dappled photography worm their way into your insides. Plus, animals! Lions and tigers and one escaped bear. It's all very Noah, if Noah was floating on a flood of tears.

Still, I am worried about Crowe. The clock is ticking on his window of career redemption opportunity and this film is not going to help his progress any. I'm beginning to think that, just in case, he should maybe start considering career options. If so, we have a suggestion: Twenty seconds of American courage, plus some Tom Petty music, and the happy zookeeper life could be his.