Review: ‘Black Beauty’ updates a classic

It’s strange to think we might be in a world where there are people who haven’t seen a Black Beauty movie. Anna Sewell’s novel was a runaway smash hit when it was published in 1877, and has been adapted to the screen no fewer than four times. This most recent adaptation takes the story, we all know and love and transplants it from the United Kingdom to the United States, and from 1877 to 2020.

What makes a classic story a classic story though is that you can tell it any way you want, and adapt it to any time you want, and it will still teach you the same lessons. Black Beauty has always been more than just a simple story of a boy and his horse, and the ideas of kindness and loyalty that the book originally championed are still here in this new adaptation.

As in the novel, the story is narrated in the first person by the titular Black Beauty (breathily voiced by Kate Winslet), this time a wild mustang rather than a farm horse, roaming free in a mountain valley until she is captured and sold. She ends up in the care of soft-spoken horse whisperer John Manly (Iain Glen) on his idyllic ranch where he rescues and trains mustangs. At the same time, his niece Jo comes to live with him following the tragic death of her parents. These two lost souls, both in the care of a kind man, eventually form a bond.

When Anna Sewell wrote Black Beauty, she did not intend it to be a story for children, but as with previous adaptations, this one is aimed squarely at them. That’s not a complaint mind you, a story hitting all the beats that this one hits is going to be an effective one children and for young adults. Stories about kindness are exactly the sort we need more of in a year like 2020.

Mackenzie Foy continues to be a young performer to watch, and Iain Glen has a good turn as the soft-spoken, kind-hearted cowboy that finds his way into her heart. Claire Forlani and Fern Deacon show up in act two as a mean spirited mother and daughter and Forlani appears to be having a good time doing it.

Iain Glen as John Manly / Black Beauty

Ultimately I think the story being translated to modern times but still managing to keep the same plot points of Beauty’s life (her time as a London cab horse to a New York central park carriage horse is a good –if obvious– choice. I think the gender flipping of both Jo and Beauty works well too, even if the new backstory results in some overly saccharine moments.

I don’t know that this adaptation adds anything new, and the new elements that it does add aren’t exactly original, but what I do know is that the story itself is a classic. While your mileage may vary with this new version of it, it’s also the kind of movie that your kids are going to love.

Black Beauty will premiere on Disney+ on Friday, November 27th


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