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MOVIE REVIEW : A Solid, Loving Tale of 'Beauty' : Created, as the novel was, from the heart, this 'Black Beauty' is as simple and straightforward as its source.

July 29, 1994|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

"I am writing the life of a horse," Anna Sewell modestly confided to her journal in what proved to be quite an understatement. Her 1877 novel, "Black Beauty," described as being "translated from the original equine," became the horse story of all time, reaching worldwide sales of 20 million by 1935 and gaining a permanent place in the fantasies of children.

Sewell's first and only novel (she died shortly after it was published) has been brought to the screen several times, but screenwriter Caroline Thompson ("Edward Scissorhands," "Homeward Bound," "The Secret Garden") was happy with none of the attempts. She wanted to stick closer to the original, and, as a lifelong horse lover, felt the only way to guarantee that was to make the film her directing debut as well.

Created, as the novel was, from the heart, this latest version of "Black Beauty" is as simple and straightforward as its source. Though not especially inspired, it uses integrity to make up for that lack, and its unaffected "just the oats, ma'am" approach makes it a fine film for younger viewers.

While she has made some small changes in the plot, Thompson has retained the book's straight-from-the-horse's-mouth conceit. Introduced happily grazing by a limpid stream, Black Beauty is quick to tell us (in a voiceover read, sometimes too enthusiastically, by Alan Cumming), that things weren't always so cushy. "Mine is a story of trust and betrayal and learning to trust again," the horse informs us. "And I remember everything."

"Everything" includes the act of being born (something Sewell wouldn't have dreamed of describing) into a pleasant farm in that storybook England where the gentry ruled and servants knew their place. Between kindly Farmer Grey (Sean Bean) and Beauty's wise mother, he learns all he can before reality takes over. "We don't get to choose the people in our lives," Beauty astutely points out. "For us, it's all chance."

The first family Beauty lands with is a good one, and the horse is put under the wise care of the aptly named John Manly (Jim Carter) and his good-hearted but initially clueless assistant Joe ("Secret Garden's" Andrew Knott).

But even performing heroic deeds and risking his life can't save Beauty from being sold into the stables of unfeeling aristocrats Lord and Lady Wexmire (Peter Cook and Eleanor Bron), where all horses must be slaves to fashion though they be treated cruelly in the process.

One of the reasons Sewell, an animal-rights activist before her time, wrote "Black Beauty" was to forcefully protest the several ways horses were mistreated, and to Thompson's credit this aspect of the book is given its due and the philosophy that "kind treatment makes good horses" enthusiastically supported.

Conversely, perhaps the most curious change from the book, and one whose silliness will be apparent even to those who haven't read it, is the decision to jump-start the relationship between Beauty and Ginger, the high-strung mare who is his sometime stablemate.

While in the best Victorian tradition of the original, the two horses told the press they were just good friends, the film has Beauty fall giddily and rather preposterously in love with Ginger, to the point of exclaiming at one point, "She likes me, she really likes me." Perhaps Thompson felt the staid original needed a bit more juice, but this solution is not a workable one.

Though the energetic American quarter horse who plays Beauty is deservedly the film's center of attention, the picture comes most alive in its second half, when David Thewlis enters as Jerry Barker, the kindly London cabbie who shows the horse what it's like to live and work in the big city.

While this simple part is literally a drive through the park for Thewlis after his agonizing starring role in Mike Leigh's "Naked," his ability to bring a level of emotional connection to the portrayal makes his scenes stand out as the most believable around.

Thompson also gets good marks for resisting the temptation to over-sentimentalize "Beauty's" story. But, more workmanlike than dazzling as a director, she is unable to bring the kind of excitement or magic to the project that animated a classic horse movie like Carroll Ballard's "The Black Stallion." This picture is not that kind of thoroughbred, but it is solid and dependable, and those qualities are no doubt rarer in films than they are in horses.

* MPAA rating: G. Times guidelines: It includes a scene of the birth of a horse and scenes of cruelty to animals.

'Black Beauty'

Sean Bean: Farmer Grey David Thewlis: Jerry Barker Jim Carter: John Manly Peter Davison: Squire Gordon Andrew Knott: Joe Green Alan Cumming: Voice of Black Beauty A Robert Shapiro production, released by Warner Bros. Pictures. Director Caroline Thompson. Producers Robert Shapiro, Peter Macgregor-Scott. Screenplay Caroline Thompson, based on the novel by Anna Sewell. Cinematographer Alex Thomson. Editor Claire Simpson. Costumes Jenny Beavan. Music Danny Elfman. Production design John Box. Art director Kevin Phipps. Set decorator Eddie Fowlie. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes.

* In general release throughout Southern California.

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