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Disney+ Review: Black Beauty

November 27, 2020

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Anna Sewell’s 1877 novel Black Beauty, which was written from the perspective of a horse and had an animal rights message that was revelatory for its time, is one of the biggest selling books of all time and has been adapted for the screen a number of times over the past century.

Now the story has gotten a “reimagining” in the form of the new Disney+ film Black Beauty, which updates the setting to modern day America and changes key details, including switching the gender of its title character from male to female and adding a human female protagonist.

Black Beauty (given voice by Kate Winslet, who narrates the film) is a wild mustang who is separated from her mother and sent to live at Birtwick Stables, where the head trainer John Manly (Iain Glen) tries unsuccessfully to tame her.

When John’s teenaged niece, Jo Green (Mackenzie Foy), comes to live with him after her parents die, the grieving teenager starts to form a bond with the restless horse. Jo breaks through to Beauty in a way that no one else can, and as Beauty changes owners over the course of the story, it’s the hope that they will one day be reunited that allows her to carry on through trying times.

Written and directed by Ashley Avis, who also edited the film, Black Beauty is a pretty loose adaptation of the classic book, using Sewell’s original text as more of a blueprint than anything else. The results are mixed, with the ambitious book having been turned into a more straight-forward and clichéd story about a girl and her horse. As such, the original story’s pointed message about animal cruelty feels somewhat muted here, with Avis staging the dramatic beats of the film in a way that often feels like items being checked off on a list.

If there’s one area in which this new film version of Black Beauty consistently feels lacking, it’s in terms of character development. Jo is more of a trope than anything else, and the supporting characters are all one-note and barely even register. The dialogue also sounds pretty rudimentary and underwritten. With that said, Black Beauty is not an unappealing film to watch, and it does boast some attractive imagery courtesy of cinematographer David Procter.

Avis also stages a few magical moments in Central Park at Christmas time in the film’s last act, which suggest a more sombre, wordless beauty that she might have been wise to tap into more. While Black Beauty is by no means a great adaptation of the book, it’s a nice enough film on its own terms, and I think those who are inclined to watch it on Disney+, namely horse enthusiasts who are likely on the younger side, will find much to enjoy.

Black Beauty is now available to stream exclusively on Disney+.

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