For more than a century, every generation has had its cinematic adaptation of “Black Beauty,” and while the new Disney+ version switches the genders of the magnificent horse as well as the young protagonist and moves the locale from the English countryside of the late 19th century to the American West of today, it’s thematically and spiritually faithful to Anna Sewell’s timeless classic, from the horse serving as narrator to the episodic nature of the storyline to the powerful and still-relevant message about humane treatment of animals — and the undeniably healing and lasting dynamic between human and creature.
I loved this movie. Yes, it’s an unapologetically sentimental, anthropomorphic, family-friendly, sugar-sweet story aimed squarely at the younger members of your brood — and stop me if you think there’s anything wrong with that. This is a beautifully uplifting film at a time we can all use a dose of old-fashioned, cynicism-free storytelling. Writer-director Ashley Avis and her production team have created a gorgeous, sweeping epic (please watch this on the biggest screen available in your house), with Kate Winslet voicing Black Beauty’s thoughts and feelings to heart-melting effect, the wonderfully talented Mackenzie Foy delivering a sublime performance as the girl who finds a kindred spirit in Black Beauty, and Iain Glen from “Game of Thrones” and “Downton Abbey” playing the most dashing and empathetic horse whisperer this side of Robert Redford.
“Black Beauty” isn’t one of those photorealistic movies with animals literally talking, e.g., the most recent versions of “The Lion King” and “Doctor Dolittle.” From the moment we meet the energetic and adventure-seeking mustang foal who will be named Black Beauty, roaming free in the wild with her mother and extended family, her thoughts and emotions are expressed through Winslet’s warm and comforting voice-over, similar to what Kevin Costner did as Enzo the dog in “The Art of Racing in the Rain” (2019) and Josh Gad did in “A Dog’s Purpose” (2017) and “A Dog’s Journey” (2019).
The first of many lump-in-your throat moments occurs when 21st century cowboys, complete with tracking helicopter overhead, round up the herd and Beauty is separated from her mother, never to see her again. Fortunately, the young filly winds up with the horse-loving, quietly noble and goodhearted trainer John Manly (even that name sounds like a Gary Cooper character), who believes wild horses can be broken in a humane fashion and should be treated with care and respect.
Just as Beauty is coming to terms with her new life, there’s another new arrival at the ranch: the teenage girl Jo Green (Mackenzie Foy), who lost her family as well when a tragic car accident claimed the lives of her parents. Alone and closed-off, a city girl in the country, Jo barely knows her Uncle Jack and wants nothing to do with him — but she does feel an immediate connection to Beauty (she’s the one who gives the mustang her name), and the connection is mutual. They are fellow wounded souls but also share a nearly unbreakable spirit, though both will be tested time and again in the years to come.
“Black Beauty” is sectioned off like the chapter book it’s based on, with Beauty spending time as a horse-for-lease on a lavishly appointed stable run by a cruel and uncaring matriarch (Claire Forlani), putting in some heroic years as a rescue horse for a good man named Terry (Hakeem Kae-Kazim) and eventually winding up as a carriage horse in New York City, subjected to backbreaking hours, horrific living conditions and terrible neglect by the mercenary stable operators. Meanwhile, Jo never gives up on one day finding Beauty, though that hardly seems likely now that Jo is a young woman living in …
New York City! Maybe there’s a chance for a miraculous reunion after all, what do you think!
There’s nothing subtle about the simple messaging urging us to be the best we can be and to treat our fellow humans and our animal companions as we’d like to be treated. Then again, there was nothing subtle about that messaging in the source material, but that doesn’t lessen its impact. Writer-director Avis even includes a lovely reference to the “Black Beauty” author’s dependence on horses and horse-drawn carriages to help her get about (Sewell was severely injured at 14 and her mobility was restricted), as well as Sewell’s groundbreaking advocacy for animal rights. The 2020 edition of “Black Beauty” is among the best versions I’ve ever seen.