REVIEW – ‘Black Beauty’ will surely be a hit with its intended young female audience

After five feature films, a TV mini-series, and a Hanna-Barbera animated television film, you’d think Anna Sewell’s classic 1877 equine novel Black Beauty: His Grooms and Companions, the Autobiography of a Horse had seen enough adaptations for one lifetime. But it’s been over a quarter of a century since the titular horse last graced our screens, so, of course, it’s time for another version, and this time it’s brought to you by Disney. Over 50 years after the House of Mouse released an LP featuring a radio program adaptation of Sewell’s novel, they finally have their own version of this much-cherished tale.

In an admirable move to offer something different to past adaptations, Black Beauty circa 2020 changes the film’s location from 19th Century England to contemporary America and switches the gender of the titular character from a male stallion to a female mustang, “voiced” by the soothing cadence of Kate Winslet. These changes may modernise Sewell’s original tale, but it feels more like a shrewd marketing gimmick than anything narratively clever.

While this latest addition to the growing Disney+ library of original projects will surely be a hit with its intended young female audience, it’s sadly a timid, by-the-numbers film that plods along sheepishly and proves to be rather forgettable. It’s breezily engaging enough for the whole family to enjoy together, but its episodic structure robs the film of any narrative flow and makes its intended emotional beats difficult to deeply connect with.

Winslet narrates the film from the perspective of the initially unnamed horse, who blissfully begins life with her herd of wild mustangs somewhere in the American West. When the young horse’s curiosity leads a group of ruthless wranglers to their hidden meadow, the horses are all rounded up and transported to a poorly managed corral to be sold off.

Feeling angry and guilty over her role in the discovery of the herd’s location, the young filly is unruly and lashes out at anyone who tries to ride her, meaning she’s likely to be sold to a slaughterhouse. A saviour arrives in the form of horse whisperer John Manly (Iain Glen), who purchases the temperamental mustang and takes her back east to New York-based training program at the cash-strapped Birtwick Stables.

While John struggles to tame the rowdy filly, the stables are soon interrupted by the arrival of John’s volatile teenage niece, Jo (Mackenzie Foy), who has been dumped on his doorstep by child protective services after the death of her parents. Filled with anger and grief, Jo soon befriends the mare and names her Black Beauty. An unbreakable bond between between girl and horse forms, with Beauty recognising a fellow broken spirit and how Jo is the “one person who could actually understand me.”

Now, before you panic, do not take that last quote literally. This is not a Mister Ed situation where Beauty starts talking with Winslet’s voice. While Disney has a recent penchant for talking animal films, Black Beauty is thankfully grounded in reality and Winslet is merely here to provide soothing narration throughout the entirety of the film. The elegant Winslet is a fine choice for such a regal creature, even if her American accent sounds rather forced in places.

The Oscar-winning actress tries her utmost to elevate this film beyond the familiar tropes of this well-worn tale. But even she can’t save the hokey horse dialogue that’s loaded with endless exposition and commentary on the events presented in front of the viewer’s eyes. Black Beauty is a film that simply doesn’t trust the intelligence of its young audience, choosing to spell out its symbolism than presume kids can understand what this film is preaching.

Much like every incarnation of Sewell’s novel, Black Beauty is rooted in a story that exposes the shameful animal cruelty horses are often subjected to, as evidenced when Beauty bounces around from owner to owner after Birtwick Stables can no longer afford to house her. From a family of affluent snobs whose bratty daughter mistreats Beauty for the sake of winning an equestrian jumping show to a cruel horse and carriage driver in Central Park who works Beauty ragged in the bitter winter cold, writer/director Ashley Avis is hardly subtle in what she’s saying here.

Avis impressively refuses to shy away from the darker elements of Sewell’s book, which leaves us with a third act that may genuinely be difficult for younger viewers to sit through. But much of Avis’ intended impact is undone by checkered pacing that moves incredulously slowly in the first two acts before speeding through the last third in a haphazard fashion. The structure of Black Beauty is too frustratingly episodic for its own good. Without an organic narrative flow, it’s difficult to connect with everything Avis has crafted.

Shot on location in South Africa, the gorgeous cinematography of David Procter gives Black Beauty a polished sheen throughout numerous beautiful landscape shots that leap off the screen. But for anyone familiar with Upstate New York, it never once escapes your mind these locations look absolutely nothing like the setting we’re being told they take place in. That being said, it’s wildly refreshing to watch an animal film featuring actual live animals and not CGI creations, and kudos must be given to the team of horse trainers for choreographing several thrilling set-pieces.

As a streaming title to pop on during a lazy Sunday afternoon, Black Beauty is a perfectly fine little film that keeps your interest throughout. Winslet’s charming narration is a blissful listen and the location photography is beautiful to view. Yet, despite its gender and location switcheroo, this latest adaptation fails to bring anything else excitingly new to the table. Young girls will likely fawn over Avis’ reimagining, but the rest of us might be left longing for something more.

Distributor: Disney+
Cast: Kate Winslet, Mackenzie Foy, Iain Glen, Claire Forlani, Calam Lynch, Fern Deacon
Director: Ashley Avis
Producers: Jeremy Bolt, Robert Kulzer, Genevieve Hofmeyr
Screenplay: Ashley Avis
Cinematography: David Procter
Production Design: Darryl Hammer
Costume Design: Neil McClean
Editor: Ashley Avis
Music: Guillaume Roussel

Running Time: 108 minutes
Release Date: 27th November 2020 (Worldwide)