Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger thinks this horse flop barely clops.
A timeless tale of love and courage.
There isn't much point in beating around the bush: Why would anyone want to see this movie, unless they are die-hard fans of the Anna Sewell book? It just isn't entertaining.
For the record, I'm reasonably fond of the Black Beauty milieu. The 1970s television show based on the novel was fun, and I've seen a cheesy miniseries or two (one on Nickelodeon, if memory serves). I was hoping that this would be an innocuous, rousing tale that I could watch with my son. What I got was a lukewarm, rather gruesome, and mostly aimless hodgepodge of uninspired drudgery.
Black Beauty is rated G, which I gather means it is targeted toward children. Picture this scene, and tell me if your five-year-old is up for it: A cruel man whips his horse harder and harder until the horse collapses, breaking the man's legs. He threatens to murder the horse, but he needn't bother. The horse is writhing around on the ground in pain. A servant pulls out a pistol, points it into the horse's forehead, and squeezes the trigger. Cut to a close-up of an onlooker's horrified face as the echoes of the gunshot ring out. Nice, huh? The only way it could be worse is if the next scene showed the servants lugging the horse's hindquarters through the street and chopping them up for soup, while the local shoemaker hacked off the hooves and boiled them down to make glue. Though this is the most disturbing scene, it is not the only adult-minded theme you'll find in Black Beauty. I'm not much of a prude; my toddler has watched anime and other age-inappropriate stuff. But I actually shielded his eyes from the screen with my body when the horse execution occurred.
At least that scene had some emotion to it. The bulk of this film doesn't concern Black Beauty at all, or Joe (Mark Lester, Oliver!), the passionate young horse owner. This isn't a very complicated formula; the two most important elements (aside from adversity) are Joe and Beauty. Yet even that is too much for director James Hill to muster. In fact, we hardly see them together before Beauty is whisked away to another owner, who then loses her to another unlikely owner, who then bequeaths/loses/trades the horse to someone else, and so on. This predictable cycle makes certain that Beauty will eventually make her way back to Joe, but we have so little invested in the relationship that the inevitable joyous reunification scene lacks interest. The events between Joe's losing Beauty and getting her back are heart-numbingly dull.
I keep talking about the horse, but it isn't really a horse. It is a herd of vaguely brownish to jet black horses, some thin and some fat. They all have a ridiculous splotch of white-out on their foreheads, which in movie land means they are the same horse. Perhaps DVD is not the best vehicle for this movie, because between the different builds and obviously fake markings, any sense of verisimilitude is erased. This is an appropriate time to mention the video transfer, which is relatively clear, relatively saturated, and has decent black levels. The shadow detail is awful, there is extremely strong grain, and the luminosity wobbles between different values as though clouds were sweeping before the sun. Little cleanup has been done. By the same token, the audio is mostly clear, though it does distort on occasion. The soundtrack is maudlin and overblown.
Black Beauty is a standard Paramount release, which is to say no fancy menus, no inserts, and no extras. At least they are charging a reasonable price for the release, which hasn't always been the case.
We still have time to discuss the sloppy editing, abysmal acting, cringe-inducing dialogue, and abuse of cliché, but I'd rather end on a positive note. Eugenie introduced me to the concept that Maria Rohm is hot, and she has a cameo in Black Beauty. She doesn't reach the levels of molten hotness that she did in Jess Franco's exploitation movies, but it is always nice to see her violent eyes and exquisite face. Fortunately, Black Beauty introduced me to the concept that Uschi Glas is hot, and for her to revive my attention amid the doldrums of this dreck is saying something. Attractive, charismatic women go a long way toward redeeming a film.
Yet the best thing about this film is the live birth of a somewhat blackish colt. How they got the white-out on its forehead is one of those movie magic mysteries. The point is that we get to witness an actual horse birth, and it is pretty cool. Worth buying the DVD for? Well, maybe not.
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