Pop culture loves to take a beloved property and change it so much that it remains the same in name only. Take, for example, HBO’s dark, gritty Perry Mason or The CW’s sexed-up Nancy Drew. So when one hears that the new version of Black Beauty no longer takes place in Victorian England but instead in present day America, there is reason for concern. Would one of literature’s most famous horses suddenly be a CGI amalgamation with super powers? Would Beauty’s trainers interact over Snapchat? Thankfully, while the setting and time period have changed in writer/director Ashley Avis’ 2020 take, the spirit of the novel, the cherished 1994 film and the majestic mustang herself remain delightfully intact.
With a gender flip from 1994’s Black Beauty, which featured Alan Cumming as the voice of the mustang, Kate Winslet voices this Black Beauty’s first-person narration of the movie. Beauty is living free in the open terrain of the West until she is cruelly rounded up by nefarious cowboys and taken from her mother. Narrowly escaping a gruesome fate, she is rescued by John Manly (Iain Glen) and brought to Birtwick Stables in New York. John hopes he can tame the willful horse and Beauty, who is played by 20 horses over the course of the film, is having none of that…until John’s 17-year-old niece Jo (Mackenzie Foy) arrives. If you’ve ever watched any Disney movie, you know, of course, that both of Jo’s parents have died tragically in a car accident and that Jo comes to live with her uncle resentful and shattered by grief. (I really think all Disney executives need to go to therapy and unpack why the parents have to die. Every. Single. Time. But I digress.)
The two damaged souls help each other: Jo is able to train Beauty and the horse helps heal Jo’s broken heart. “I realized that just maybe there was one person who could actually understand me,” Beauty tells us as she and Jo begin their friendship, “And the amazing thing was I understood her too.” Jo names her Black Beauty and wonders why it is called “breaking” a horse when “partnering” is a far superior term. It is a pure, simple tale without any cynicism or snark—and the crux of the film is the fierce and loving friendship between Beauty and Jo.
Foy perfectly captures Jo’s arc from utter devastation and heartache into happy adulthood. As the voice of Beauty, Winslet’s lyrical cadence is a soothing thread through Beauty’s tumultuous life journey. However, at times, the narration can be a little distracting because it is so clear you are listening to Winslet’s version of an American accent. It feels like any moment she might yell out, “I’ll never let go, Jack!”
Although Beauty’s trials and tribulations are different from the source material, the message of Anna Sewell’s 1877 novel, as now envisioned by Avis, remains loud and clear: Be kind. Treat animals with respect and care. The horse-drawn carriages of Victorian London are replaced by those that permeate New York City and Central Park. There, like throughout much of her story, Beauty meets people who are extraordinarily compassionate and those that are extraordinarily cruel. Said cruelty is broadly drawn. Beauty is loaned out to the wealthy Winthrop family, where the petulant adolescent daughter Georgina (Fern Deacon) views Beauty as an animal that should bend to her every whim. “The new girl’s voice was at a pitch I was sure only horses and dogs could hear,” Beauty says. “Not to be mean, but it was a very terrible sound.” For the most part, the Winthrop family is cartoonish: Rich people equal evil. “Our son is fraternizing with the help,” Georgina’s mother (Claire Forlani) says with disdain when Jo and her son George (Calam Lynch) become friends.
But it would ruin too much to reveal more about the plot. The movie looks stunning with sweeping landscapes and gorgeous shots of Beauty in action, as South Africa makes a lovely stand-in for both the American West and New York. An inspiring movie for young, old and everyone in between, I would be shocked if the movie’s final moments didn’t lead to a cathartic cry for every viewer. The beauty of this story is timeless.
Director: Ashley Avis
Writer: Ashley Avis
Starring: Kate Winslet, Mackenzie Foy, Iain Glen, Claire Forlani, Calam Lynch, and Fern Deacon
Release Date: November 27 on Disney+
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).
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