Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Black Beauty

Anna Sewell's Black Beauty: His Grooms and Companions, the Autobiography of a Horse has been adapted a dozen or so times over the past one-hundred years to both television and film. Disney+'s new version centers mostly on the relationship between the wild mustang (voiced by Kate Winslet) and an orphaned teenager named Jo (Mackenzie Foy) who bond at her uncle's (Iain Glen) horse sanctuary following the death of Jo's parents.

Recasting Beauty as a mare rather than stallion allows for writer/director Ashley Avis to reframe the story, in part, as female empowerment (with a bit of class struggle thrown in for good measure). It also, not so subtly, highlights the comparisons between Jo and Beauty who create a lasting bond that continues long after they are separated. The script highlights the themes of animal cruelty from the book as the script touches on Beauty's later owners, a ranger (Hakeem Kae-Kazim), a farmer (Jacques Wuister), a carriage driver (Greg Parves), and finally an unscrupulous carriage business owner (Deon Lotz) who treat Beauty with varying levels of care before the horse comes back into possession of Jo at the end of the film.

Even with swapping the gender of the horse, the new version of Black Beauty doesn't offer anything not seen before. Fixated firmly on the emotional relationship between a girl and her horse, the film fits comfortably into what I like to refer to as the "horsey" genre. There's nothing unexpected here, but Avis does hit the emotional beats (some quite hard) and Foy is well cast for a film that cares more about the horse than most of its human characters. The movie does feel a bit unfocused when Jo and Beauty are separated as it largely glosses over a large chunk of the horse's life (while ignoring Jo's life apart from the horse altogether). Still, for fans of the book, or for those who have never seen its adaptation, Black Beauty is moderately successful (although it may also illicit a few tears).

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