'Black Beauty': Film Review

BLACK BEAUTY-Publicity still- H 2020
Graham Bartholomew
The Anna Sewell classic rides again, to lethargic effect.

Mackenzie Foy and the voice of Kate Winslet headline this latest, live-action take on the classic book.

The sixth time around the paddock is decidedly not the charm for the latest live-action feature incarnation of Black Beauty, based on the enduring Anna Sewell-penned equine adventure.

Swapping out the title character’s gender from male stallion to female mustang, while changing the setting from Victorian England to the modern-day American West, writer-director Ashley Avis has also enlisted Kate Winslet to provide the “horse’s-eye-view” narration in keeping with Sewell’s 1877 novel (officially called Black Beauty: His Grooms and Companions, the Autobiography of a Horse). But while Winslet’s presence is always welcome, the voiceover that blankets the film proves tediously redundant, failing to enliven this dramatically flat production.

Beyond the intended, traditional young female demographic, it would be hard to imagine this Black Beauty rousing audiences when it ambles onto Disney+ over Thanksgiving weekend.

“A wise horse once told me that a mustang’s spirit can never be broken,” observes Winslet, as she proceeds to share her inner thoughts regarding the relationship between a wild horse and the girl she loved. Following a prologue during which the animal becomes separated from her herd, cruelly rounded up by rustlers and dumped in a dusty corral, Beauty finds a savior in sympathetic John Manly (Scottish actor Iain Glen, summoning his best Sam Elliott), a horse whisperer who has yet to meet one he hasn’t been able to break over at the financially struggling Birtwick Stables.

Providing a more formidable challenge is the arrival of his moody teenaged niece Jo (Mackenzie Foy), who has been effectively left on his doorstep after being orphaned by the death of her parents. But in short order, girl and horse form a tender bond over their shared loss and broken spirit, which Winslet is quick to point out just in case the audience doesn’t get it.

Not counting the various animated and TV series permutations to emerge over the years, the last time we actually heard it directly from the horse’s mouth was in Caroline Thompson’s nicely appointed but poorly-performing 1994 version, with Alan Cumming providing the narration. Despite Cumming’s avid delivery, the late Roger Ebert wasn’t impressed, writing, “It plays like a cross between New Age mysticism and anthropomorphism run amok.” That’s pretty much the main problem here as well.

Saddled with that needless voiceover and in the absence of more involving plotting — Beauty is subsequently shunted episodically from one owner to the next before her eventual reunion with Jo — the wispy production never gets up to speed. Even with all the updating and reimagining, writer-director Avis, herself a lifelong equestrian, struggles to unharness the plot mechanics and characters from the printed page. And while the muted performances might have benefitted from the occasional more emotionally rooted response and the South Africa locations don’t quite convincingly double for John Ford country, it’s the inertness that ultimately stops Black Beauty in its tracks.

Although those numerous film and TV renderings could never match the breathtaking scope of Carroll Ballard’s masterful take on Walter Farley’s The Black Stallion, you still keep holding out hope that the spirited mustang will break free of its musty confines and truly take flight.

Distribution: Disney+
Production companies: Constantin Film, JB Pictures
Cast: Kate Winslet, Mackenzie Foy, Iain Glen, Claire Forlani, Calam Lynch, Fern Deacon
Director-screenwriter: Ashley Avis
Producers: Jeremy Bolt, Robert Kulzer, Genevieve Hofmeyr
Executive producers: Martin Moszkowicz, Edward Winters, Jon Brown
Director of photography: David Procter
Production designer: Darryl Hammer
Costume designer: Neil McClean
Editor: Ashley Avis
Composer: Guillaume Roussel
108 minutes