Like so many beloved children’s classics, the story of “Black Beauty” has always been run through with blunt messaging, tough traumas, and the kind of painful imagery no kid ever really shakes off. Over time, some of those more realistic impulses may be dulled down for wider consumption — the sort of thing Disney has built its animated classics around, woe to the tyke who watches “The Little Mermaid” and then seeks out its source material — but the darker elements that author Anna Sewell oriented her 1877 novel around have mostly endured through countless adaptations. And while the latest, a family-friendly drama from Disney+ and filmmaker Ashley Avis, offers a slightly lightened up take on the material, its enduring lessons and charms hold fast.
Plus, there’s Kate Winslet voicing the horse of the title, a powerful bit of casting that can’t be denied. (And that’s to say nothing of the aces horse acting that goes into creating the on-screen Beauty, emotive and thrilling enough to ably drive home the story’s primary theme that animals have feelings, too.)
Sewell’s novel has been adapted many times over the years, and even Avis’ film’s apparent big twist (Beauty is a girl! and so is the kindly kiddo who loves her!) has been done before (the 1921 silent film version of the story featured a female protagonist, and that was nearly a century ago). But this “story of a wild horse and the girl she loved” has been freshened up in other ways, from its sensitive handling of grief (both human and equine) to its no-holds-barred plea for animal welfare.
Relocated from the English countryside to the American West (though primarily filmed in South Africa), this “Black Beauty” follows a young wild mustang after she’s captured, tamed, and forced to cycle through owners both good and bad. As is always the case with this particular mythos, Beauty remains steadfast in her love for her best owner — winningly played by a lovely Mackenzie Foy — and the hope that they may one day be reunited. Opening with Beauty’s early years in a wild herd (plus a loving mother, clearly not long for this world), Winslet’s spirited and emotional voiceover narration lays out both the scene and the filly’s state of mind.
Caught during a wild mustang roundup, Beauty and her mother are separated, and it’s only dumb luck that lands the young horse with a good-hearted trainer (Iain Glen). Sewell’s story is rooted in the weird chances of life, cycling Beauty through both happy and horrible times, the only difference owed to the people who populate the different circumstances Beauty winds up in. While Avis’ film often gets heavy-handed with that messaging, it’s true to the spirit of Sewell’s book, which forever impacted the fight for animal rights and led directly led to the abolishment of the use of the “bearing rein” (a type of tack that didn’t allow carriage horses to lower their heads) in Victorian-era England.
So, yes, the themes of “Black Beauty” are relatively simple, but that doesn’t detract from the power of such classic lessons as “be nice to people,” “show kindness to all living things,” and, of course, “animals have feelings, too.” They sure do, and Beauty has lots of them. While Winslet’s narration as Beauty initially leans on exposition, it eventually blossoms into a wonderful addition to the story, offering keen insight into the horse’s world and helping smooth over some rougher bits of narrative. (And, again, Winslet is quite delightful as the willful mustang.)
Like Beauty, Foy’s Jo Green has endured horrible tragedy, and as the wild horse and the heart-broken girl slowly bond, “Black Beauty” transforms into a heart-warming tale of the power of love. That’s hardly the end of it, however, and Avis’ script cleverly retrofits Sewell’s story into a modernized tale. Tragedy follows Jo and Beauty, and they are eventually (and repeatedly) separated, with both of them clinging to the memory of the other to uplift them in tough times. Broadly drawn baddies, like a monstrous matriarch played by Claire Forlani and a series of cruel carriage drivers, attempt to break Beauty, though other loving owners at least temporarily remind her of the good in people.
The episodic nature of the story does wear on its energy, however, and the final act is punctuated by a series of half-stories and almost-conclusions that only prolong the inevitable (and welcome) end to the classic story. Sewell’s book has always been a better fit for piecemeal storytelling — the book itself is divided up by Beauty’s owners — and while Avis’ script does keep the relationship between Beauty and Jo at its center, that lends an uneven treatment to many of Beauty’s later adventures. Nothing is quite so light on its feet as the film’s first half, but that’s perhaps the point of all of this: to get back to a dreamy time when a girl and her horse could roam free, steadfast in the simple truths of life, an enduring message that continues to translate to fresh pastures.
“Black Beauty” will start streaming on Disney+ on Friday, November 27.