Black Beauty is one of those stories that gets adapted to film at least once per generation. The book is over 100 years old, and the new Disney+ movie from director Ashley Avis is, at minimum, the ninth time the story has been adapted in the medium. For a generation of young children that may not be familiar with the classic tale, or who has not yet seen any of the other adaptations, the new version could certainly become a somewhat definitive telling. However, for anybody who has seen the story of Black Beauty before, or is simply too old for it, the new version will likely be little more than a Thanksgiving Weekend distraction.
The thing about Black Beauty which may go a long way in its popularity is that not only is the horse's name the title of the book, but he (the horse is male in the original book) is also the main character. The book is told from the horse's point of view, and is the narrator through all of the various adventures that he goes through. The new film holds true to the book's conceit, but only the structure of the story remains. Beyond that, this is a very different, and very modern adaptation.
This time around Black Beauty is female, and is given life in voice-over narration by Kate Winslet. The setting is also modern day. Black Beauty starts life as a wild mustang, but is eventually captured and taken in by John (Iain Glen) who attempts to train the wild horse. John has another "wild" creature he's trying to tame as well, when he takes in his niece Jo (Mackenzie Foy) after both her parents die in an accident. Jo has little interest in her new family that she barely knows, but she does make a connection with Black Beauty.
Kate Winslet's voice actually makes Black Beauty less of a character.
What follows in Black Beauty is less of a cohesive story as it is a series of adventures. The film feels almost episodic in the way a series of events happen to Black Beauty and/or Jo. This, like Black Beauty voicing the action, is fairly consistent with the source material, but it has the effect of making the film feel disconnected. Events transpire largely out of the control of any of many characters, forcing a change in status or location. This in turn, sets up the next "thing" that happens.
This story structure could have been helped if the characters were easier to connect and empathize with. Unfortunately, the movie never seems to be quite sure who the main character is. At times it feels like the film wants us to connect with Jo given that she is the main human character. But then, Black Beauty is the one narrating, and she's not telling us Jo's story so much as she's telling her own. (Even if there's a decent amount of that story the horse could never have known about.)
And the voicing of Black Beauty as a character, while it may work as a narrator of a novel, doesn't work as well on film. While Kate Winslet's voice acting is fine, it's just largely unnecessary. While there are certainly points where Black Beauty tells us something that we might not otherwise be able to learn, for the most part, Beauty simply describes the events of the film that we're already watching, and thus it just isn't that important. Perhaps there was a feeling that the young audience this film is clearly meant for could use the additional guidance, but I'd wager that's only going to be the case for the youngest viewers. Most children would still understand what was happening, and how Black Beauty is feeling, without the help.
Black Beauty will get lost on Disney+.
Black Beauty is a "Disney+ Original Movie" only in that it's never been seen anywhere else. The movie wasn't actually produced by Disney and was instead acquired by the company for streaming just a couple of months ago during the ongoing global pandemic that has kept theaters closed. It certainly fits the mold of a "Disney movie" in that's it's a story suitable for all ages, but that's about the only thing that works on Disney+. Unlike, the previous Disney+ original, Clouds, which was also acquired after production, Black Beauty doesn't add anything to the service beyond "something else to watch."
There's nothing "wrong" with Black Beauty at its core. The performances are fine, the cinematography is quite lovely. In fact, if you're looking forward to Black Beauty because you're excited by the idea of seeing beautiful shots of horses running in nature, there's more than enough here for that interest. There just isn't much else. In the end, however, the lovely pastoral visuals are about all that you'll remember when Black Beauty is over. The conflicts will pass in and out of memory as quickly as they are introduced and resolved on screen.
Black Beauty will still be a hit with its main audience.
But at the end of the day, when you're talking about Black Beauty, does any of that really matter? Black Beauty is a horse movie for people who love horses. Like A Dog's Purpose if you're a dog person, some people are naturally disposed to love horses, and for that audience Black Beauty will certainly be everything they're looking for. It's just unlikely that many outside the horse lovers will find much here.
The new Black Beauty isn't going to become the definitive version of the classic story for anybody that's already fallen in love with another, But it seems this is one of those stories that will be reinvented for every generation. Perhaps it will make new fans of Black Beauty in some, who can then share the story with the next generation, when they get their movie.
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