Four (or more) movie versions precede this latest cinematic incarnation of "Black Beauty," but none have managed to capture the spirit of the book as well.
Bravely adapting the first-person voice of Anna Sewell's classic novel, which is to say, the horse's point of view, screenwriter and director Caroline Thompson plunges in where more timid filmmakers might fear to tread and is vindicated with a lovely, touching film for all ages.
"Black Beauty" is sort of the equine equivalent of the Merchant-Ivory pictures ("Howards End," "The Remains of the Day"), in that it is veddy British, has something to say about England's class distinctions and is gorgeously photographed with stunning Victorian sets and costumes. (And though the book was originally intended as an indictment of inhumane treatment to animals, it also works as a metaphor for how we humans treat each other.)
The story is simple enough, as a magnificent horse is passed from owner to owner and discovers that whether his life is good or bad, easy or hard depends entirely on the person who takes ownership.
The film begins as the title character is sitting beneath a tree, thinking about his life. The bulk of the film then goes into a lengthy flashback, beginning with his birth.
Beauty finds himself with a wonderful first family, owners who love and care for him. Then, when he's old enough, he's sold to an aristocratic family that is also kind. There, he learns a work ethic and how to trust his instincts, which come into play as he is called upon to save the life of his trainer during a torrential rainstorm.
Eventually, however, the matron of the household becomes quite ill, and the family is forced to move. So, Beauty is sold off to a snobby uppercrust couple (Eleanor Bron and Peter Cook, who co-starred 27 years ago in "Bedazzled"), who literally drive both Beauty and his lady love Ginger into the ground.
One of the film's most enjoyable segments is when Beauty is purchased by a working-class stiff to pull his cab through the cobblestone streets of dark, dank London. David Thewlis ("Naked") is utterly charming as the cabbie, who gives the horse the same kind of love he bestows on his family.
Ultimately, the episodic nature of "Black Beauty" works against the film's narrative thrust, as the audience no sooner warms up to characters than they disappear.
But Thompson does keep the action moving, and there are several big sequences a barn fire, the aforementioned raging storm, etc. Yet, she never sacrifices the humanity if that's the word of the central character and story.
Though it is not a great film, "Black Beauty" is a very good one. Fans of the book and those looking for something that is intelligent enough for adults and entertaining enough for kids should be more than satisfied.