Black Beauty is a wild young mustang, rounded up in the West to be broken for ownership. Iain Glen (“Game of Thrones”) is the craggy rancher in charge of Beauty, and his niece, Jo (Mackenzie Foy), unexpectedly comes to live with him after her parents die. Just like the fiery mustang, she’s been torn away from her family and isn’t in the mood to be comforted.
Beauty, we know, feels the same, due to an internal narration voiced by Kate Winslet. The comparison is a little ham-fisted — but then, this is a Disney adaptation, beautiful but frequently treacly.
“Black Beauty,” the 1877 novel about a horse’s long and varied life, was written back when horses were a part of everyday experiences. It’s been adapted many times over the years, and in 2020, the story feels substantially more exotic. But there’s never been a time when little girls didn’t love horses, so the decision by writer-director Ashley Avis to make horse and human friend both female seems like a no-brainer (Beauty and Joe are male in the novel). And who better than Winslet to make the noble steed’s inner life really sing?
The film toggles a little awkwardly between Beauty’s narration and Jo’s point of view, until the girl is sidelined for a good stretch of the movie. We accompany Beauty through being bought and sold several times, into increasingly harrowing circumstances, all while Winslet expresses the mustang’s determination to find her way back to Jo.
One of the purposes of the book was to shine a line on animal cruelty, which is admirable — but “Black Beauty” veers so often into the dark and the sad I question how much appeal it’ll really have for the younger set. Still, if your tear ducts need cleaning, this is one holiday film that’ll get the job done.
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