If "The Black Stallion Returns" fails to equal the awesome beauty and lyric exaltation of its predecessor, the microscopic margin of difference shouldn't worry anyone who loved the original.
A number of the people responsible for the original film, such as director Carroll Ballard and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, have moved on to other projects, but their replacements are not exactly starved for talent. Robert Dalva, an Oscar nominee as film editor on "The Black Stallion," was promoted to director, and he demonstrates a command of storytelling rhythm and adventure fantasy that complement the flair for set pieces of action and suspense.
"The Black Stallion Returns"--which transports the young hero, Kelly Reno as Alec Ramsay, on a fantastic odyssey to North Africa in search of his beloved stallion--allows cinematographer Carlo di Palma to luxuriate in Moroccan and Algerian desert landscapes that shimmer vividly in a rich white-to-gold range, set off by brilliantly blue skies.
Dalva and screenwriters Richard Kletter and Jerome Kass have finessed a problem that never confronted the author of the series, Walter Farley, when he decided to continue the adventures of Alec and The Black in the late 1940s--the obvious growth of the juvenile star.
Kelly Reno's radiant freckled face hasn't changed much in the three- or four-year interval between films, and he's acquired a fresh photogenic distinction and physical eloquence by becoming spectacularly long-legged. The new movie evokes an initial surge of affection by simply savoring Reno's lankiness, as Alec is discovered exercising The Black in a pasture.
However, this growing-up process also makes it even more imperative to invent a different kind of high adventure as an encore.
The profound, mystic attachment between child and wild animal that animated the original couldn't be repeated anyway, but Reno's entrance into adolescence puts an extra burden on the filmmakers to find a myth that takes his maturation into consideration.
And so they have. Using the plot outline supplied by Farley's novel but altering it in astute and suggestive ways, Dalva and his collaborators succeed in guiding Alec's love of The Black into freshly revealing and gratifying thematic pathways.
The crucial change from novel to screenplay in "The Black Stallion" came early: when Alec's hearty, courageous father was lost in the shipwreck, Alec and The Black were thrown together as castaways and exchanged a series of rescues that eventually cemented a mysterious, stirring devotion.
Readers also will detect some tactical changes at the start of "Returns," notably the decision to isolate Alec from adult chaperones in his search for The Black, who is spirited away by a Berber chieftain, Abu Ben Ishak (Ferdinand Mayne), who claims (truthfully) to be the original owner of the horse, whom he calls She ta n.
In the novel, Alec was accompanied all the way to North Africa by the horse trainer Henry (the Mickey Rooney role in the first film) and a prominent breeder. In the movie Alec doesn't wait for parental approval or grown-up supervision; the abduction stirs him into immediate, impulsive pursuit, and he follows the trail of The Black from Long Island to Morocco without batting an eye or wasting a thought on sensible travel arrangements.
He's not without life-saving guides or mentors, but the emotionally savvy aspect of the screenplay is that these good samaritans turn up on the trek through the desert--they're noble Arab tribesmen whose code of hospitality and respect for courage prompt them to protect and assist this phenomenally determined, unflappable boy.
The love of boy and horse is the given in this story, and it propels Alec to embark on an incredible search halfway around the world. What he now discovers in the course of that search is a series of indispensable human friendships and obligations in an alien culture, and these attachments complicate and enrich his eventual reunion with The Black
Alec is once again a castaway, but this time the experience is contrived to forge lasting bonds with exemplary members of his own species. That attachment grows so strong as a result of shared dangers and heroic exertions that Alec perceives his love for The Black in a new, mellowing respect. He's capable of a farsighted gesture of generosity that repays the extraordinary generosity and affection shown him by the valorous Berbers who cared for him.
While Kelly Reno isn't an actor, he embodies an illusion of imperturbable, invulnerable juvenile valor that is far more expressive in this storybook setting than the skills a professional kid actor might possess. His crucial qualification, of course, is his unactable rapport with Cass-ole' and the other horses trained to portray The Black, but Reno's equanimity seems equally beautiful. Instead of presenting neurotic tics or cute tricks to the camera, he brings an authentic, unself-conscious athletic grace.
Dalva's tone and pacing are so sure that the fundamental outrageousness of Alec's odyssey never interferes with the willing suspension of disbelief. You realize, of course, that this impromptu trip is quite incredible, but it unfolds with the seductive clarity and logic of an adventure happening in a dream.
Judging from the reactions of a group of kids at the screening I attended, the denouement of "The Black Stallion Returns" may provoke a curious split. The movie ends with what adults and older kids are fairly certain to appreciate as an inspired parting gesture from Alec, confirming the fact that he's begun to mature and take the long view of things, including the things he cherishes.
If you have younger kids who wonder if Alec's taken leave of his senses, you might reassure them by mentioning the title of the third book in the series: "The Son of the Black Stallion." I'm already looking forward to it.