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In 1877, Anna Sewell published her only novel, Black Beauty: His Grooms and Companions, the Autobiography of a Horse. The novel instantly became a hit and eventually became a classic in children’s literature (although it wasn’t intended to be a children’s novel). The novel would spawn multiple film adaptations with the most recent one being the 2020 Ashley Avis-directed film that debuted on Disney+. Is it a classic just like the novel it’s based on? Read on to find out!
And remember, SPOILERS AHEAD!
The film begins with narration by the mustang, Black Beauty herself, voiced by Kate Winslet with a surprisingly good American accent. (This film adaptation changes the character of Black Beauty from a male horse to a female horse.) Black Beauty tells us about her life being free in the wild, galloping through the wilderness with her family. It’s not long though before some cowboys wrangle up her entire herd to be sold. She’s bought by a rancher named John Manly, played by Iain Glen, who also has a surprisingly good American accent. While he is kind and humane to her, Black Beauty has developed a distrust for humans and partnered with her inner feistiness, she prevents herself from being ridden or “broken in”.
John soon gets saddled with another problem when his sister and brother-in-law die in a car crash in New York. This results in their child, Jo, played by Mackenzie Foy, being sent to live with John. (This film adaptation changes the character of Joe Green to Jo Green.) Due to John not visiting her and her family much, she bears resentment towards him. He tries his best to be there for her, but she won’t let him in. And it’s not just that, but she’s still dealing with the loss of her parents as well as the challenges of a new school and mean girls being mean towards her.
Due to their similar feelings, Jo and Black Beauty sense a bond between each other. Black Beauty allows Jo to get close to her and she enjoys spending time with Black Beauty. She starts reading books about horse training and begins to mellow both towards life and her uncle John. John helps Jo to “break in” or “partner” (as she prefers to say) Black Beauty and Jo and Black Beauty are inseparable.
Jo soon realizes that Black Beauty will eventually be sold. The ranch isn’t owned by John and all horses that are trained there are later sold. After a groom’s carelessness causes a fire which burns down most of the barn, Jo makes a deal with the owner of the ranch. If she can raise enough money by the end of summer, she can buy Black Beauty as long as she works on the ranch, helps rebuild the barn, and pays for Black Beauty’s food. She also has to allow Black Beauty to be leased in the summertime should anyone want to lease her.
Lo and behold, a rich, aristocratic family known as the Winthrops want to lease Black Beauty. Mrs. Winthrop, a stuck-up aristocratic woman, played by Claire Forlani, wants Black Beauty for her spoiled, egotistical daughter, Georgina, played by Fern Deacon, to win horse competitions with. Mrs. Winthrop also has a son, George, played by Calam Lynch. He is kind compared to the rest of his family, not to mention, incredibly handsome. It’s not long before he’s attracted to Jo and she to him. Black Beauty is leased to the Winthrops with Jo allowed to accompany her to be her groom.
The Winthrops treat Black Beauty very harshly, however. Jo tries her best to stop this behavior, but it results in Georgina losing a race due to their mistreatment of Black Beauty. Jo and Black Beauty return to their ranch, but the sad news is the ranch is being closed down and all the horses sold, including Black Beauty. As Jo watches Black Beauty being hauled away, she promises to find her again one day.
As the years pass, we see Black Beauty being sold to many people including a rescue ranger, a farmer, and a carriage driver. Some of them treat her well while others abuse her. She’s abused so much that one day, she collapses in a New York street and her picture goes “viral” resulting in Jo discovering Black Beauty’s location.
The authorities are called to rescue Black Beauty (and other abused horses in that particular stable) while Jo reunites with Black Beauty. Many years have gone by and Jo is now married to George. They have since rebuilt her uncle John’s ranch and bring Black Beauty there to spend the rest of her days.
And that was Black Beauty! Honestly, I’m quite impressed! This movie is way better than I was expecting it to be! This is an adaptation done right! It’s not just the changing of the genders of Black Beauty and Jo that work, but also the changing of the setting to the present day that works flawlessly! The parallels between Black Beauty and Jo are apparent and the acting by Mackenzie Foy and the horses used to portray Black Beauty is really commendable. The scenery is gorgeous and I feel this would have made a great cinematic picture had it been released post-COVID.
My one main problem with the film (besides some lackluster acting from Calam Lynch and other minor actors) is the last third of the film. For the first two-thirds of the film, it’s wonderful seeing the stories of Black Beauty and Jo as they intertwine and depend upon each other. Once Black Beauty is sold to various owners, I feel the film somewhat loses its focus. I understand that this is the point of the novel, i.e. to showcase how Black Beauty was treated by multiple owners, but if this adaptation was already making changes, I think a change resulting in Black Beauty and Jo never being separated would have strengthened the film. Or even if in the last third of the film we see Jo’s journey as she searches for Black Beauty, that would have sufficed. It’s just odd to not see her again until the very end of the film when she’s reunited with Black Beauty.
Again, that’s my only main issue with the film. I highly recommend checking it out, regardless of whether you’re into horses or not!
So, my final score for this film is 31/35 = 88.57% (B+) !
The next review will be posted on December 21, 2020.