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"We don't get to choose the people in our lives. For us, it's all chance.",
This review is from: Black Beauty [DVD]  (DVD)
Anna Sewell's novel was originally intended to increase awareness of the appalling working conditions of horses and the indignities forced upon them by the demands of 'fashion' and insensitive owners (the book was widely distributed by animal rights campaigners), so it is perhaps little surprise that the first faithful film version proved a box-office disaster in the US. Despite reuniting many of those responsible for The Secret Garden [DVD]  in the hope of repeating its surprise success, it lacks the feelgood factor of either that or a Free Willy, being bittersweet at best, after an unsteady first half-hour assuming a steadily darker hue as it becomes harsher and more genuinely affecting.
There are problems, mostly to do with the script and Caroline Thompson's direction, both of which seem to lack confidence and ambition in the early stages (production values, it has to be said, are top-notch throughout). That the film is narrated by the horse (and voiced by Alan Cumming) is not so much of a problem as the fact that at times it just won't shut up - by comparison, Mr Ed is a Trappist. Unfortunately, take away the narration and the visuals in the first half of the film would not be sufficient to tell the story alone. Worse, the film is shot too impartially, only rarely assuming the horse's point of view (although a brief dream sequence is beautifully realised) and Thompson initially has difficulty integrating the animals and the humans - top-billed Sean Bean's walk-on part consists entirely of a handful of uninspired and poorly staged reaction shots. Indeed, only Jim Carter and David Thewlis stand out in the familiar cast as the most sympathetic of Beauty's handlers.
Yet for all its faults, emotionally the film works, particularly in its often extremely powerful last half-hour. In particular, Beauty's reunion with Ginger, his life-long love from happier days, her body emaciated, her spirit broken, barely able to recognise him before her carcass is unceremoniously disposed of, is an emotionally shattering and genuinely heartbreaking sequence whose impact lasts far beyond the film's happy ending. Simply filmed and all the more affecting for its understatement, it is one of those rare moments that shows the power of cinema to transcend words and thought and directly address the senses.
The film missed out at the box-office and doesn't seem to have fared any better on video or the small screen. Warners' letterboxed DVD pressing offers good picture quality that highlights production designer John Box's marvellous recreation of London in the cab-horse section while the soundtrack does full justice to Danny Elfman expressive classical score. A minor classic. The only extra is a brief trailer.