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'Black Beauty'

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 29, 1994


Caroline Thompson
Peter Cook;
Eleanor Bron;
David Thewlis
General audience

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There are nice things to say about the latest movie incarnation of "Black Beauty," Anna Sewell's classic Victorian novel featuring literature's most beloved horse, but nice is about as far as you would want to take it.

In her screenplays for "Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey," "The Secret Garden" and "Edward Scissorhands," Caroline Thompson has made the child's-eye view of the world her special corner, and, on paper at least, "Black Beauty" seemed the perfect vehicle for her directorial debut. But while her version is stalwart, evocative and in every respect passable, at the same time it lacks the magic and resonance of a classic.

As a protagonist, Black Beauty falls somewhere between Little Nell and Mr. Ed. In the three previous screen adaptations of the story, the spotlight has strayed from the horse to the human characters. Thompson takes the less-traveled approach of having the story emerge straight -- so to speak -- from the horse's mouth, and though she earns points for faithfulness, she also adds considerably to the movie's already high soupiness factor.

In 1877, when Sewell's novel was written, the author's purpose was to expose the shameful treatment of horses in England, and while this aspect of the tale has been downplayed, our hero still must endure his share of abuse. His story, he tells us from the comfort of the pasture where he looks back on his life, is about trust; it's about how he learned to trust in the goodness of human nature, lost that trust and then regained it.

Along the way, this brave stallion is passed from his kindly original owners into the uncaring hands of a status-conscious couple (Peter Cook and Eleanor Bron) who sell him into heavy labor after he is scarred in an accident. Though Beauty suffers greatly, the movie skips rapidly through these punishing years without conveying much in the way of emotion until he is purchased by a good-hearted cabbie in London. These bustling city scenes, along with David Thewlis's warm, quietly nuanced performance as the cabbie, give us more of a human foothold, and in this context the character of the horse seems to come more vividly to life as well.

Otherwise, the movie is truly memorable only when Beauty (played by a 6-year-old quarter horse named Justin) frolics in the pasture, showing off his handsome lines and making rather an ass of himself in pursuit of a comely chestnut filly named Ginger (played by a Russian thoroughbred named Rat). In these moments the horses are allowed, at last, just to be horses.

Black Beauty is rated G.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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