Screenwriter Caroline Thompson’s penchant for dreamy lyricism, which served her so well in her scripts for Edward Scissorhands and The Secret Garden, is put to the test in Black Beauty, her retelling of Anna Sewell’s classic 1877 children’s fable about equine patience, pathos, and Victorian good and evil. Viewers of this glossy-flanked family picture who were once girls, or who have sisters who were once girls, may recall that the story is told from the point of view of the horse. Viewers whose most recent association with talking horses was the 1960s TV series Mr. Ed will appreciate that the effect is difficult to pull off without unintentional giggles.
Thompson, also making her directorial debut, is undaunted by would-be neigh-sayers. Her particular horse narrates the story of his birth, upbringing, and adventures with various Dickensian owners (some jolly nice, some frightfully mean, etc.) in a high, twee, unnecessarily precious British Storyteller delivery (supplied in a voice-over by Alan Cumming — at least BB doesn’t flap his lips) that has the effect of making a basically charming story go drippy. At one point, the hero rhapsodizes about the deliciousness of oats. From the sound of his delirium, you’d think the grain had been dusted with opium.
This damp sentimentality is too bad: The setting of Black Beauty is idyllically pastoral, Danny Elfman’s music swells like Tara’s theme in Gone With the Wind, and the elegant cast works well and sincerely. Sean Bean (Patriot Games) plays the pleasant farmer in whose stable Black Beauty is born; Jim Carter (The Singing Detective) is a kindhearted trainer; Eleanor Bron and Peter Cook, in a happy repairing nearly 30 years after Bedazzled, make a perfectly cruel Rich Couple; and David Thewlis, his face shaved clean of the degenerate wisps he wore in Naked and Prime Suspect 3, is tender as a poor-but-honest hansom cab-driver whose kind treatment of Black Beauty brought the misery of mistreated animals to public attention back when the book was first published.
Girls will inevitably love all this. Boys will torment those girls by saying ”oats, oats, oats!” in twitty voices that make their sisters cry. B-