Like any book-to-film adaptation there’s a key artistry to getting the most out of the material beyond simply staying true to the “vision” that the book had in mind. Any screenwriter worth their salt knows that books and movies are about as similar as rock climbing and origami. Black Beauty is a film that is leaning too heavily on its novel counterpart to drive its film based narrative. The reason I say “novel counterpart” and “film based narrative” is because it’s important to understand that books and films are not the same and Black Beauty is a film with a major identity crisis in this regard.
Written and directed by Ashley Avis, Black Beauty is based on the 1877 novel of the same name – it follows the story of a young girl named Jo (Mackenzie Foy) who forms a bond with a wild horse called Beauty. Throughout this story we receive narration from Kate Winslet as the horse, Black Beauty. Much of this film is centered around the classic “inseparable bond” between man and animal — or in this case, girl and horse.
The heavy reliance on narrating the beats of the story from the perspective of the animal (Kate Winslet) leads to exactly what you could expect… detachment. Detachment from the characters, story, and themes. Now, why is this? How exactly can a film detach you more when you heavily anthropomorphize the animals? Well, it’s less of a matter of anthropomorphism and more that the audience is being told what the characters are feeling instead of being shown. You can successfully create heartfelt kids films without the need of narration from the story’s animal – WALL-E (2008) is proof of this – barely a single word is necessary to create a powerful emotional bond between the audience and the creature in question. Narration, like any storytelling tool, has its uses — but to use it to do the emotional heavy lifting for an animal character takes away the opportunity for the audience to form their own bond with said character.
What really makes Black Beauty a tough ride is the dialogue. The dialogue unfortunately lends itself too heavily to the novel, quoting sentences that feel needlessly descriptive and cheesy in the context of the film. This is at its heart a kids film, so one would feel more lenient in giving it a pass for its cheesy lines and emotionally exaggeratory nature, but it is simply too difficult to engage in the story whenever I was interrupted by this dialogue. Much of this could be forgotten if I was able to enjoy enriching performances by its lead actress Mackenzie Foy but the material does not lend her much leg room to provide a varied emotional performance – much of her character entails short arguments with little in the way of deeper texture.
This film does not establish much of a visual aesthetic – mostly static and motionless shots, add in quite a bit of lens flare and a dash of beautiful shots with magnificent backdrops. Black Beauty begins to feel very repetitive on a visual level as a lot of close-ups with similar angles are often used. While, something I can appreciate from this film is using a real horse rather than resorting to quickly rendered CGI – it makes the film feel more intimate when trying to show the bond between Beauty and Jo.
Arguably, one of the better attributes in this film is the environments in which the characters operate – whether that be the sun-setting seashore, a rugged barn or Central Park in New York. We are presented with an array of different environments, and for the most part, they feel genuine. The composition for Black Beauty can be categorised as simply, generic. Another film that attempts to use music to evoke emotion rather than elevate it. It is a demonstration that material within the lines of the film is not enough to evoke emotion so it aims to use music to assist that.
Black Beauty has trouble finding itself, like many book adaptations there’s the contention of how much to borrow and how much to create anew – while this film may certainly appeal to a particular target audience of kids, the question of quality in my view is that Black Beauty is lacking it. It may, at times, present itself with the visual grace of a thoroughbred stallion; but its lacking narrative and flat dialogue make it a struggle to even reach the finish line.