THE BLACK STALLION -- At the Avalon.
Every child-and-horse film has the following tear-jerking episodes:
The horse hurts his leg.
The child lies ill, preferably in a coma.
The child loses a parent whose legacy suggests the future.
The child strikes up a friendship with a lonely old man.
Callous grown-ups mistreat the horse and the child.
The child's horse is behind in the big race through some accident, but recovers at the last moment and wins.
Each of these scenes is in "The Black Stallion," but in a restrained manner that seeks to jerk no tears. The emotion, and it's considerable, is produced, instead, entirely by the beauty of the film.
There are no cheap tricks, but many expensive ones -- magnificent photography, luxuriously and lingeringly using ocean, sunsets, rainstorms, skyscapes, rock formations, sand dunes, country fields, mists. Each of the characters has immense natural dignity -- the superb Arabian horse; the solemn, freckled-faced boy, played by 11-year-old Kelly Reno; the hoary old man, Mickey Rooney, and a second old man, Clarence Muse, whose face is so philosophically craggy it ought to be a national monument.
They go through the simple story -- so minimal that much of the film is without dialogue -- with a grace that makes visual poetry without sacrificing naturalism. Those standardized scenes, such as the boy's falling into a faint after a rough workout on the track, are over in an instant, and the audience reassured that he will be fine. What the film time is spent on, lavishly, are such scenes as the boy teaching the horse a running game on the beach as an overture of friendship, or an underwater view of the horse's prancing legs.
This stunning film is based on the 1941 novel by Walter Farley, about the far-fetched adventures of a boy who is shipwrecked with a valuable horse that he brings home to his backyard. Director Carroll Ballard has chosen to play down the amazing story-line to create that amazing esthetic impact.
But it wouldn't be a Francis Ford Coppola production without a few irrelevant intellectual pretensions. The role played by the copy of "The Golden Bough" on Marlon Brando's night table in "Apocalypse Now" is given here to Alexander the Great, the parallels of whose career to that of a little American boy named Alec are not striking.
What is perfectly stunning is the fact that a fine movie that can truly be enjoyed by all ages has appeared at holiday time, relieving a great many parents from having to choose among the harmless junk offerings to amuse their children.