I approached the viewing of Black Beauty with a certain degree of guarded skepticism. Sure, this is based on a piece of classic literature, one that has been adapted to screen many times — this time by Caroline Thompson, who not only wrote the screenplay adapting Anna Sewell’s novel, but also made her directorial debut with the feature. If any source material should bolster the odds of a good film, it’s a classic novel. But classic novel or not, it’s still a horse movie. I like horses all right; my father currently has four of them, and while they can be a pain in the neck at times, they can also be nice to have around. But I’m unconvinced that Hollywood is capable of producing a horse movie that isn’t positively drenched in either saccharine sweetness or maudlin melodrama, or both.
Sitting down to watch the film, I realized I was in trouble the moment the horse started talking.
At least Mr. Ed would never speak unless he had something to say.
To be fair to Thompson, it probably seemed like a good idea at the time. Sewell’s novel is (from what I’ve read about it) narrated from the horse’s perspective, so doing the same for the movie would seem like a good way to make it closer to the book than previous adaptations. The problem is, it doesn’t translate very well. Alan Cumming provides the voice for Black Beauty’s narration, and while Cumming is otherwise an accomplished actor, he doesn’t fare well here. It’s mostly the writing, which appears to be at the third grade level. I don’t mean it was written for third graders — though that’s about the correct level for the novel, if I recall correctly — I mean it sounds like it was written by third graders. It’s trite and overly melodramatic, and Cummings’ delivery just heightens the whole thing to laughable proportions. And it’s utterly unnecessary. The plot, which follows Black Beauty’s journey through various owners, both kind and cruel, is simple even for a small child to follow. And the cruelty of certain owners (Sewell’s point was to expose animal abuse) is obvious even without Cummings yelling “Oh, my aching neck!” at regular intervals. The narration may be true to the book… but it’s needless and distracting in the film format.
As for the plot, it’s marginally interesting, but only marginally. If you don’t need to be informed on what (formerly) common horse care techniques were cruel, then there isn’t much left here beyond “what a nice horse”. It’s impossible to imagine anybody whose age is in double digits finding this an enthralling film. The human actors are all right, though none of them are really shown enough to warrant calling special attention to. The horses, oddly, are a bit of a mixed bag. One would think that when it comes to a horse film, some basic training for some scenes would suffice, and otherwise let them act naturally. But here the director and animal handlers haven’t quite succeeded. Scenes where they jump are mis-timed, and other actions are so clearly staged by the handlers that it has the effect of making a natural creature look unnatural, which is an impressive feat but not a laudable one.
Here Black Beauty punches the air for about a minute. I’ve been around a succession of horses for about 20 years. Know how many times I’ve seen them do that on their own initiative? Never. Rear up, yes. Kick other horses, yes. Stay in the air and shadowbox at nothing, not once.
I will give the filmmakers some praise, however, in that they did indeed find a good looking horse for the role. Even this comes with a small amount of criticism, however, in that the horse, Doc’s Keeping Time, is an American Quarterhorse. And at the time Black Beauty was written, and set, the breed was not yet established. I’m willing to forgive the anachronism, considering virtually nobody in the target audience would notice, but I did feel it warranted mentioning.
But overall, even a movie titled Black Beauty needs more going for it than just a pretty horse and some nice pastoral scenes. And this just doesn’t have it. The plot is thin, the characters are unworthy of notice, and the narration is irritating. Children with indiscriminate tastes might like it, but even they are unlikely to consider it a favorite. And older children and adults would be well-advised to steer the young ones to something more palatable.