Black Beauty (2020) Review

In spite of some stunning frames, Black Beauty never truly takes flight

Rhea Srivastava -

Black Beauty (2020) Review
Platform
Disney+,Disney+ Hotstar
Digital Premiere Date
Format
Movie Rated
Genre
DRAMA
Language

Anna Sewell’s classic children’s novel, ‘Black Beauty’ has received many glorious adaptations in the past. But one thing that remains constant across the canon is the plea against abuse of horses, as well as the overarching themes of kindness and empathy. The 2020 version is directed by Ashley Avis, a former competitive equestrian, who I am assuming feels strongly enough about the subject matter. So it is somewhat surprising that instead of being able to highlight the hateful treatment of the eponymous ‘Beauty’ by humans, we get a watered-down melodrama about a girl with a horse and a teen romance. 

What is the story about?

Amidst the many chapters in the 1877 novel, is the chapter about Beauty (voiced by Kate Winslet), a fiery mustang who finds a friend in the orphan Jo (Mackenzie Foy) at the Birtwick Stables. Beauty and Jo have one thing in common - being in adverse circumstances, amongst strangers, after being separated from their families. Both are angry at the world and their friendship helps heal the other. When Birtwick begins to struggle financially, Jo’s uncle John leases Beauty out to the wealthy Winthrops. Their vile daughter Georgina abuses Beauty for her ambition, even while her older brother George is kind towards her (and hence, a love interest for Jo). Eventually, Beauty is sold off and continues to face hardships under many owners, and her story is as much of hope and freedom, as much as it is about her reconciliation with her human companion, Jo. 

Analysis

‘Black Beauty’ may very well be the name of the film, and Academy Award-winner Kate Winslet may be the calming and soothing narrator of Beauty’s tale as herself, but the story is essentially that of Jo’s. What Winslet’s narration does is seem mostly like an exposition of some classic lessons for kids - the importance of being kind and good to animals, and to people. And most importantly, ‘a mustang’s spirit can never be broken.’ If Beauty and Jo are both courageous stallions looking to be free in the wild, it doesn’t quite come across. 
 
Both Jo and Beauty have endured a horrible tragedy and their bond is a true testament to the power of unconditional love and how it heals people. But beyond that, on a textual level, Black Beauty seems like a series of events that just fall into the sheer dumb luck category of getting them back together. People are mean to them, sure, but they’re not as terrible as they make it out to be. Jo and Beauty have one conversation about the death of the former’s parents, never to revisit that pain ever again. The entire track of Beauty falling into the hands of a cruel carriage driver with a nefarious side business comes a little too late to really go head-on into the ‘animal cruelty’ plea. 
 
Most people in Beauty’s story are good people who aren’t cruel to her. And all those good owners make the best of their time with Beauty, during which we have no clue how Jo is, and how she acquired enough money to restart Birtwick, and how her relationship managed to endure with George after seven years. Things happen to Beauty and Jo in fragments of half-baked incidents and that makes the film seem slower than usual. 

 

Performances

Kate Winslet is quite a delight as the wild Beauty, and she even tries to pack in a few quips here and there, even if the script keeps her narration mostly one-tone and dull. Mackenzie Foy is rather lovely as Jo. Most of the other cast is competent. 

Music & Other Departments

David Procter, an alumnus of the Berlinale Talent Campus, shoots Black Beauty, and the movie looks nothing short of stunning, apt for a free-flowing tale of this nature. The score ably complements the lush tone and texture of the visuals. Some of the visuals alone would have made Black Beauty a worthy theatrical watch, but the lack of narrative focus and weepy style make it more apt for an afternoon TV rerun.

Highlights

‘Black Beauty’ is well-intentioned, having the winsome book it is based on as its source material. So we know that the central plot of a girl and her horse finding solace in each other is extremely welcome to the Hallmark Channel-shaped void in our lives. And it’s not like any time you see the horse, you don’t automatically feel this sense of joy and ease inside, a smile automatically drawing upon your face. That’s really the only legitimate reaction one can have when seeing an animal like that, that too one as stunning as Beauty. 

Drawbacks

This adaptation, however, has a plot which is rather lame, and the narration moreso. Claire Forlani as Mrs. Winthrop being disdainful over her son fraternizing with the help is as dated as Jo wondering how people can be cruel to animals. Black Beauty is a modern-day retelling but seems stuck in some time warp where cruelty and meanness would be a shock. We don’t get to hear of what Jo’s parents meant to her, what are the kind of financial troubles endured by Birtwick, and finally, how are horses being mistreated at a stable in the middle of New York City. And the treatment of Beauty by some of her owners is by no means warranted, but it is certainly not as involving as a plotline. 

Did I enjoy it?

I enjoyed looking at the visuals, and some interactions between Jo and Beauty, and even those of Beauty alone, genuinely brought a smile to my face.

 

Do I recommend it?

I recommend it for the pre-teen to a teenage girl (or boy) demographic. Leave it on for your youngster and they might find it appealing enough to pick up the book soon too. 

 


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