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‘Black Beauty’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 29, 1994


Caroline Thompson
David Thewlis
potentially saddening developments for children, such as loss of friends and cruelty to animals

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Presumably, "Black Beauty," Caroline Thompson's adaptation of the Anna Sewell novel, will satisfy moviegoers who get a Flicka! in their hearts no matter what horse movie they're watching. I'm picturing preteen girls with braces in their mouths and piles of jodhpurs in their closets.

But assuming a good picture is one that transcends its own material -- pulls in a variety of people with no special interest in the subject -- then "Black Beauty" is a lumbering candidate for the glue factory. Despite a novel twist -- autobiographical narration from the horse itself -- Thompson's film is like those children's specials on public television you dutifully force your kids to watch. This movie's so dull it's amazing the images even register on the film emulsion.

It doesn't need to be so. Children's films deserve as much creative attention as anything else. Debuting director Thompson, screenwriter of "Edward Scissorhands," "The Addams Family" and "Tim Burton's 'The Nightmare Before Christmas,' " canters shakily between mundane and competent as she pieces horse footage together with all-too-much narrative. She could have saved herself a lot of money by holding the book up to the camera and turning the pages for us.

Not that there's anything wrong with the story, about a beautiful black horse who learns that life consists of nice masters and mean ones; and that sometimes, the nice ones come back and save you from the meanies. This tale of heartbreak and exhilaration, of trust, loyalty and learning to trust again, is for young and old.

"We don't get to choose the people in our lives," the long-suffering, eponymous horse tells us. "For us it's all chance."

But as a movie, this is for the extremely uncritical -- and the well-rested. If you're even a little tired, this thing will have you fighting to stay awake. Little bears mentioning except, perhaps, a surprisingly pleasant performance from David Thewlis as one of Black Beauty's nicer owners. As a Dickensian, good-natured cabdriver, he ably distances himself from previous roles as a woman-hating vagrant in "Naked" and a suspected murderer in the third "Prime Suspect" TV series.

Visually, the movie seems crammed into the frame so nothing will be lost when "Black Beauty" starts its inevitable video rental life. There's none of the breathtaking cinematography, for instance, that distinguished Carroll Ballard's "Black Stallion," a superb horse movie for all ages. For crying out loud, a horse is beautiful. Give the four-legged Beauty its due!

BLACK BEAUTY (G) — Contains potentially saddening developments for children, such as loss of friends and cruelty to animals.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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