11 December 2007

Black Beauty

Black Beauty for Young and Old

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 Snowy River. This December, however, I chanced upon a second hand copy of Black Beauty. $2, Sean Bean’s in it, and hey, my nieces would like it.

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 Birtwick Park. There he frolics with fellow horses Ginger and Merry Legs and kindly stable hands John Manly (Joe Carter, Dinotopia) and Joe (Andrew Knott). Unfortunately, hardships and injury force Beauty’s move to a cruel Lord and Lady, hostile liveries, a kind but hard working cabbie named Jerry (David Thewlis), and finally backbreaking labor before his return to idyllic pastures with Joe. It’s a story that’s been tread more than once, but this faithful film includes all the good, bad, and tear jerking of Beauty’s life.

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, Kingdom of Heaven) also surprises as poor, but kind Jerry. Darling as the actors are in Black Beauty, the star is without a doubt the horse- Docs Keepin Time (The Horse Whisper, Busch Commericials, too.). Thompson (Edward Scissorhands, The Secret Garden, Corpse Bride) smartly makes people are secondary in the film, even though they are the positive or negative influence in Beauty’s life.

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 London, carriages and coaches bring us back to a time we often imagine as lofty and ideal. In fact, Beauty’s telling shows us how low and ignorant those times often were.

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.


Anonymous said...

I just rediscovered this movie when I stumbled across the soundtrack on youtube.

Even just listening to the opening bars I am swept back into the emotions I felt when I first watched this movie as a child.

I couldn't agree more that children should be exposed to the extreme emotional situations of this film and others like it. I remember feeling shock at the violence towards the horses and empathizing with their pain. This movie really affected me as a child. You don't really get that kind of emotional experience in movies anymore. I really think that a person's emotional intelligence can be affected by what they see as a child - if all a person watches is happy cartoons or extreme violence, then that person misses out on being exposed towards other emotions. In my community this is a topic under a great deal of discussion.

I almost don't want to watch this film again - while it would be nice to relive the experience it just would not be the same, do you know what I mean?

Anyway, it seems that you wrote this post a long time ago but I couldn't help but say something on this review.

Kristin Battestella said...

I Speaks! Thanks for taking the time out to stop by and comment. No post is ever too old to talk about!!

I agree, sometimes some serious emotion from a book and film are critical in quality and development! Maybe if more kids today read heavy stuff or watched good movies there might not be so much apathy going around!

I was choked up just the same on my rewatch as well. Of what community group are you speaking? Feel free to use this review if it is of merit for you. There's nothing like intelligent discussion!

Again, thanks for stopping by!