By Kristin Battestella
Whether by choice or requirement, every school kid has probably read Black Beauty. The 1877 novel by Anna Sewell shed light on the mistreatment of horses, and the 1994 film adaptation written and directed by Caroline Thompson renews this heartwarming story for all.
I bypassed Black Beauty when I was working at a video store and again when it worked its way into the $5 bin at Wal-Mart. There have been countless films, cartoons, and series taking the name (14 at imdb!) -horse movies themselves are a dime a dozen, and my favorite has always been The Man From
Well, I should not have waited on my purchase. Alan Cumming voices Beauty, a lovely black stallion who enjoys his early life with Farmer Grey (Sean Bean) and subsequent move to
Although he’s top billed, Sean Bean’s role as Farmer Grey is rather small-especially considering that in 1994 he was perhaps at his height: Sharpe, Patriot Games, Goldeneye. Nevertheless, Bean gives us a touch of how good he can be as a good guy-it’s a rarity in American films and a pleasant surprise. Also often cast as a villian, David Thewlis (Harry Potter,
At first an adult may scoff at the idea of a film narrated by a horse, but Alan Cumming (X-2, Tin Man) sells the animal’s innocent and loving nature. Just like the book is narrated by Beauty, I found myself waiting for the horse’s commentary in the film’s quiet moments. At some point during the viewing you are without a doubt on the animals’ side. It leads to much food for thought. Yes, why don’t those pesky humans listen to Beauty? Why are humans cruel to animals to begin with? Why do we fail to notice when a horse is in pain or has instincts that we fail to comprehend?
Underlying the charming work onscreen is the lovely score by Danny Elfman (The Simpsons, Charlie and The Chocolate Factory) When words or visuals won’t get you, music will. Cumming’s vocals and the music timing fit the horse’s work perfectly. I applaud Thompson and her production team for its work-which I’m sure wasn’t easy even with the best trained acting horses. The beautiful English locales and majestic looks of the horses practically sell themselves. Again, with such scenery it’s easy to be on the horse’s side. Nods to the 19th century are also enchanting. The nobility’s clothes versus the poor, Dickensian streets of
Naturally, all the visuals mean diddly if you haven’t got a story. Black Beauty could have been done with claymation ala Gumby and it would still turn the heart of anyone. My nieces are young and can be touchy-so I put on the DVD for a solo viewing-besides, I could get some lovely screen captures. It’s been many years since my horse phase (does every kid have a horse phase?) I haven’t read books like The Saddle Club or King of The Wind in years. I dare say its been twenty years since I’ve read Black Beauty. Even so, when my nieces borrow books from me, Sewell’s classic is the one I always suggest. Unfortunately, my nieces saw a cartoon version and said it was too sad. Black Beauty is very sad, down right upsetting in some parts, yet it’s the story my father and I always discuss when we pick up the kids at school. It’s as if this kind of emotion is necessary for youth. Books and film like Old Yeller, Where The Red Fern Grows, Shane. Children ought to learn about the extremes of the human-or horse-condition. Learning how to cry can do us all a bit of good.
Thompson smartly frames Black Beauty with happy opening and closing scenes. Just in case you aren’t familiar with the story, you need to know it has positive outcome. There were moments in my viewing I expected, and others I had forgotten-but each brought a tear to my eye or a choke in my throat. I don’t recall the reception this film received upon its release in 94, but Black Beauty is kind of like Les Miserables or The Ten Commandments. Sometimes a story is too good to mess up-too good for critics and box offices numbers to matter.
Any age, animal lovers or not, Black Beauty can be enjoyed by anyone, and such family friendly entertainment is tough to find at such an affordable price. Black Beauty is available at most retailers under $10, cheaper if you know where to shop. As much as I whole heartily endorse Black Beauty, parents should be careful with those under ten or any extra-sensitive kids. The film is rated G, but a pre-viewing without the kids is a safe way to determine when your child is ready for this heartwarming, but tough story. Be on the look out for some sad goodbye sequences and animal abuse. One upsetting horse death might want to be skipped by parents all together.
Naturally, the film comes with the standard warnings about animals on set, although the DVD is devoid of behind the scenes or interactive featurettes that might help kids separate fact from fiction. It’s wise to remind younger audiences that the story does have a happy ending, and it’s a purely fiction film-although it brought about social changes on the mistreatment of horses. Depending on the younger folks’ reactions, parents could consider directing young readers to the book or the story of invalid author Anna Sewell. The wealth of material and emotion experience around Black Beauty is worth the tug at any and all heart strings. Share Black Beauty with the young and old.