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Black Beauty (1994) Print E-mail
Tuesday, 30 November 1999


Warner Bros. Family Entertainment
starring: Alan Cumming (voice), Sean Bean, David Thewlis, Jim Carter
release year: 1994
film rating: Four Stars
sound/picture: Three-and-a-Half Stars
reviewed by: Abbie Bernstein

Director/screenwriter Caroline Thompson’s adaptation of Anna Sewell’s classic 19th-century animal tale ‘Black Beauty’ remains one of the unsung best pictures of 1994 and one of the best family films of the ‘90s. Loving, impassioned, beautiful to look at and faithful to the source material, this version is the perfect cinematic mate to its literary source. Thompason has adapted Sewell’s novel in a clean, straightforward style while reveling unapologetically in the wonder of horses.

Thompson daringly preserves Sewell’s manner of storytelling, with the horse Black Beauty relating his saga in his own words. Although Beauty does not converse with humans nor (in this film) with his fellow beasts, he conveys his thoughts to us via voiceover. His attitude is so warmly matter-of-fact, with a slight plaintive tinge now and then - credit actor Alan Cumming for employing precisely the right vocal touch - that this convention works without ever seeming precious.

We are introduced to Beauty when he is a content, older animal. He assures us that life was not always so pleasant and proceeds to review his eventful past. We are shown his birth and first faltering steps at his mother’s side in the dramatic Chapter 3; his first sight of the wide world of the field and all the creatures therein; his experiences being taught to bear a bit and a saddle. Throughout his life, Beauty is sold again and again, his fate resting on the good or ill will or whatever master has him.

Although the protagonist is essentially passive - one of the main themes in ‘Black Beauty’ is that it is up to humans to treat domestic animals well, as animals are entirely subject to human whim - Thomas creates a sense of forward momentum and invites empathy rather than pity for Beauty. In her capable hands, the story is enormously moving without being coy or treacly. Thomson makes us believe this is really how a horse sees the world - and makes us care mightily while she’s at it.

Every shot conveys excitement, curiosity and a visceral sense of place and event. A burning barn in Chapter 12 is especially harrowing, with immediate, gripping sound effects, but the subtler sounds and visuals throughout are also tremendously affecting. Danny Elfman’s score soars and Alex Thomson’s cinematography captures images that sing to the eyes.

‘Black Beauty’ is a rarity, a film that lives up to its "for all ages" billing, one of the most accessible and most poetic animal movies made in ages. It is a disk worth purchasing to for repeat viewings, with or without young friends on hand.

more details
sound format:
English Dolby Surround Stereo; French Dolby Surround Stereo
aspect ratio(s):
Original Aspect Ratio, Enhanced for Widescreen TVs (exact ratio not given); Full-Screen Aspect Ratio: 1:3:3
special features: Theatrical Trailer; French Language Soundtrack; English Closed-Captioning; French Subtitles; Chapter Search
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 27-inch Toshiba

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