Disney’s new version of “Black Beauty” makes the famed fictional horse a wild Western mustang and moves her from 19th century England to modern day America.
But writer-director Ashley Avis doesn’t shy away from the dark undertones of Anna Sewell’s sentimental girl-and-her-horse tale. In modernizing it, Avis (“The Trouble with Mistletoe”) also modernizes Sewell’s ahead-of-her-time view of a horse’s life — kindness and bonding mixed with animal cruelty, seen in the way a horse changes hands many times over its lifetime. She picks up on the fact that too many who want this plaything don’t want any part of the lifetime commitment and expense that would make the horse’s quality of life bearable.
Oscar winner Kate Winslet narrates “Beauty’s” life story, growing up in a herd out West, curious about the humans who intrude on their wilderness, a curiosity that brings callous cowboys and a helicopter roundup that ends with most of the herd corralled and “it was all my fault.”
Iain Glen is the horse whisperer who saves the gorgeous, furious black filly, a “strike horse,” from the slaughterhouse. John takes her “back east,” to New York (the part that looks like mountainous South Africa) where the Birtwick Stables he helps run does a bit of mustang “rescue” work.
He isn’t getting anywhere “breaking” the horse when his newly-orphaned niece (Mackenzie Foy of “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms”), sullen and embittered by her loss and resentful of her uncle, befriends the mare and gives her the name “Black Beauty.”
But Jo has barely just “partnered” (rather than broken) the horse when outside forces send Beauty on her odyssey of modern horse ownership. She’ll be a show jumper, a national park rescue ranger’s ride, and a draft horse while her first love — Jo — finishes growing up, pining for and searching for her missing Black Beauty.
Winslet’s narration anchors the story in Sewell’s world, the horse’s eye-view of human-horse interaction.
“I decided humans must be very lazy. They always want to be carried about by something.”
Uncle John (Glen, of “Game of Thrones” and “Downton Abbey”) is the human philosopher of the tale, detailing the humane way of “partnering” a horse, quoting the poet that there’s “No secret so great as that between a rider and his horse.”
Foy doesn’t give us the big emotions her role calls for. Still waiting for the long-haired model to come into her own as an actress.
Claire Forlani is the imperious rich woman whose bratty daughter will abuse Beauty, and Hakeem Kae-Kazim is the intrepid ranger who treats the horse like the tool that (to him) it is.
And if you know anything of the most widely-criticized misery horses face in modern America, you can guess where the third act is going.
With its obvious melodrama, obviously misleading “locations” and even more obvious big stunts, “Black Beauty” doesn’t transcend its sentimental children’s entertainment origins.
But Avis more than does the novel justice. And parents might find themselves as moved as the film’s intended viewership by this story of a horse’s hard life made better by the girl who loves her.
MPA Rating: unrated, G-worthy
Cast: Mackenzie Foy, Claire Forlani, Iain Glen, Hakeem Kae-Kazim, Calum Lynch and the voice of the voice of Kate Winslet.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Ashley Avis, based on the Anna Sewell novel. A Disney+ release.
Running time: 1:49