A generation of naive young lads marches off to death in the World War I epic "War Horse." Dreaming of heroism and grandeur, they charge into the trenches to find that butchery has little respect for honor.

But in the end, it's not the love of king and country that drives this Broadway blockbuster but the love between one of those earnest young chaps and his beloved horse, Joey. The 2011 Tony winner for best play, which began at the National Theatre of Great Britain before trotting around the globe, is nothing short of a tour-de-horse.

Sculpted by the wizards at South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company, these ravishing equines are part art, part poetry and thoroughly spellbinding. Part of the SHN series, this stirring British import runs through Sept. 9 at San Francisco's Curran Theatre.

Though crafted from cane and leather and cloth, the horse at the center of the story, Joey, emerges an almost human presence. A marvel of engineering from his exposed aluminum skeleton to his translucent fabric skin, the horse almost seems to breathe, to bristle with the stuff of life as he canters about the stage or nuzzles a human hand. It's impossible to take your eyes off Joey as he gallops into the heart of the country boy Albert (Andrew Veenstra), and together they find themselves caught amid the crossfire of the war that was to end all wars. There are also delicate bird puppets that flash by and a mischievous goose puppet that's quite a charmer.

Based on Michael Morpurgo's children's novel, which also inspired the recent Steven Spielberg movie, "War Horse" captures the tragedy of the Great War in a theatrical epic of breathtaking scope and intensity. Helmed by Beijan Sheibani, in the manner of original directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, this is the rare Broadway blockbuster that lives up to its hype.

While Morpurgo's tale, sensitively adapted by Nick Stafford, is unabashedly sentimental, the rigor and discipline this spellbinding feat of puppetry demands lets the show earn its tears. It takes three puppeteers to animate each horse, and you can feel the Herculean effort it requires to capture the glories of movement, from the flick of an impatient tail to the unmistakable shiver of fear.

The bond between a boy and his steed starts early. Stung by his drunken lout of a father (Todd Cerveris), the Devon farm boy Albert desperately needs someone to love him back. His stalwart mother (Angela Reed) tries to protect the boy from life's hardships, but it's really his camaraderie with the colt Joey that gets him through. Together, they learn to navigate the treacherous terrain between childhood and adult life.

The stallion is Albert's lifeline. So when his no-good dad sells the horse to the cavalry, the boy enlists just to find his beloved animal. The carnage Albert must witness along the way leaves his spirit forever scorched.

That said, it's not the human struggle that truly mesmerizes us here. Instead, it's the fate of the six magnificent horses charging into machine guns that puts the lump in your throat. The insanity of pitting thoroughbreds against tanks, a confrontation beautifully evoked in one of many haunting tableaus, brings home the brutal absurdity of war with jarring clarity.

When one of the animals gets tangled in the barbed wire of No Man's Land, it's hard not to look away, although there's nothing gory afoot. It's just that we are so deeply emotionally invested in these puppets that we can't bear to watch them suffer.

The magic of "War Horse" is how explosive our imaginations can be. The suspense of this narrative is taut enough to wreak havoc on the nerves for 2½ hours.

Most importantly, if you're not in tears at some point during this show, you had better go to a doctor because something may be wrong with your heart.

'war horse'

Based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo, adapted by Nick Stafford
Puppets by Handspring Puppet Company

Through: Sept. 9
Where: Curran Theatre, 455 Geary St., San Francisco
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes; one intermission
Tickets: $31-$100 (subject to change), 888-746-1799, www.shnsf.com