If you title a movie Black Beauty, it should be safe to assume that the film will be about the beloved horse of classic literature. In director Ashley Avis’s new adaptation, however, she seems to have forgotten the titular character entirely.
Anna Sewell’s 1877 British classic was an immediate hit with the general public and is thought to be a forerunner of the “pony book” genre. Beauty — a lovely black horse born with a white star on his forehead — tells the story of his life to readers, detailing his bringing up, his many human masters, his friendship with other horses, and the places he has been. The book focuses on themes of kindness and gentleness and highlights the often poor treatment of animals in the author’s era. Though not originally written for children, it is generally categorized in that genre today. Black Beauty has sold more than 50 million copies, making it one of the best-selling books of all time and demonstrating the cultural importance of the beautiful and engaging tale.
Clever cinematic retellings of familiar stories can be both delightful and thought-provoking. Even changing the location of a well-worn tale can add flair and flavor. But a careful director who understands the value of her chosen work will use these changes to enrich the story, not diminish it. Unfortunately, Avis’s production relies on modern tropes that stifle the creative potential of the film. These range from an ideological agenda (changing male roles to female roles to make a feminist statement) to the tired “rich snobby girl treats horses badly” shtick, leaving us with unserious messages and shallow characters.
Resetting the story in America, rather than the Victorian England of the novel, is an interesting twist, but the creativity ends there. In this film, Beauty is not the stallion of the original but a mare, voiced by Kate Winslet, an excellent actress who ought to have been offended by the poorly written lines she was given in the role. If the director had a discernible reason for making the horse female, that would be one thing. But to do so simply to fit in with the all-female-remakes trend is shallow and disingenuous. The original Black Beauty was a vehicle for promoting animal welfare and ending bad practices engaged in by upper-crust or ignorant owners. Avis seems aware of the serious problem of managing wild-horse populations in the American West and of the mistreatment of carriage horses in New York City, but the screenplay jumps around so much that these real issues are lost.
This leads to the main problem with Avis’s movie: its overabundance of plotlines. Viewers are led in too many directions to get a good grasp on any given thread. In the novel, Beauty does indeed end up in numerous locations, but it happens over the course of many years. Here, however, we are taken from Utah to upstate New York in the first nine minutes of the film, left upstate for an hour, then tossed back to the West for about twelve minutes, and then suddenly find ourselves with Beauty back in New York — this time in the Big Apple — for the last 18 minutes. As in the book, each move places Beauty with different masters and performing various jobs (racehorse, mountain rescue horse, carriage horse, etc.), but here the uneven spacing of events is awkward and choppy.
Beauty’s human counterpart is Jo Green, played by the lovely Mackenzie Foy, yet another female character who in the original story was male. In the book, Joe Green is a young groom who learns much by caring for Beauty and, after many years apart, eventually rediscovers him. Movie Jo is an angry teenager who has tragically lost her parents. Sent to live with her horse-trainer uncle (who rescued Beauty from Utah), she gradually comes out of her shell and forms a bond with the horse.
A talented actress, Foy here is given nothing to work with in the character of Jo and maintains a forlorn, wistful countenance throughout the entire movie. In the book, we are given background about humans only as they pertain to Beauty’s life story. Here though, our focus tends to be mostly on Jo, even when Beauty is speaking. Yes, the two help to tame and strengthen each other, but instead of having intertwining storylines, Jo’s story of loss and love vies clumsily with Beauty’s. At one point, Beauty even says she “decided to give them some space,” and leaves us to focus on Jo and her love interest. And unlike the literary Joe Green, who has grown into a young man by the book’s end, movie Jo stays young and childlike, despite having somehow saved enough money to buy Beauty’s former home, Birtwick Stables, and transform it into a horse-rescue operation.
Along with details such as the “Birtwick” name, Avis loosely includes some of the original story’s major plot points, such as the stable fire, Beauty’s job as a carriage horse, and her serious illness due to an inexperienced caretaker. But even these are just surface details. By beginning the movie with a wild, angry horse, Avis misses the point that Beauty is a genteel animal, a horse instructed by his mother: “I hope you will grow up gentle and good, and never learn bad ways; do your work with a good will, lift your feet up well when you trot, and never bite or kick even in play.”
Beauty’s lovely friendships with fellow horse Ginger and the pony Merrylegs are barely mentioned. This is disappointing, as nearly half the book is spent developing these friendships, particularly with Ginger. One of the strengths of Sewell’s novel is that her story gives the reader insights into human nature from an unexpected viewpoint. We see a number of different people throughout the movie, but again, our understanding of them is truncated because all the focus is on one person, Jo, with whom Beauty desperately wants to be reunited.
To say that this movie is based on Sewell’s Black Beauty isn’t nearly as egregious as saying Frozen is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” Keeping a few names and events, however, does not a good adaptation make. The story would have been better served if the movie had merely taken some inspiration from the book and told a new story, instead of claiming rights to bear the same title. Considering its confused plot and weak acting, the story feels contrived. And all of those gorgeous galloping-on-the-beach shots aren’t enough to save it.