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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this adaptation of Anna Sewell's 1877 classic novel Black Beauty is emotionally taxing, with the central horse suffering abuse, loss, and danger. The human characters, too, find themselves in perilous situations, including being dragged, chased, thrown and kicked by horses, nearly drowning in a flooding river, and risking their own lives to pull horses out of a burning stable. There's also emotional intensity throughout. Both the horse, Beauty, and her human soulmate, Jo (Mackenzie Foy), have suffered the loss of their parents and find themselves alone, their spirits nearly broken. Teen riders make fun of Jo for living and working at the stables, saying she smells bad. When Beauty is sold off to a series of different owners, she's put to hard labor, mistreated, and nearly worked to death more than once. Some of these scenes are quite sad; cruelty to animals can be very difficult to watch. That said, the film, told mostly from the horse's perspective, ultimately shows a clear respect and admiration for the animals, and it conveys positive messages of loyalty, family, perseverance, resilience, and courage. It ends on an uplifting note.
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What's the story?
Teenager Jo (Mackenzie Foy) and wild mustang Beauty (voiced by Kate Winslet) are both strong souls whose spirits have nearly been shattered by unfortunate events in BLACK BEAUTY. The horse's herd was rounded up from the wild and sold off individually, separating the young filly forever from her mother, community, and the golden meadows of her youth. Jo's parents died in a car accident and she's been sent to live with her uncle, whom she barely knows. This is how Beauty and Jo both end up under the care of horse trainer John Manly (Iain Glen) at New York's Birtwick Stables. The two connect on a spiritual level, helping each other heal and settling into their new lives. One day, Birtwick's stables burn down, and Beauty is leased to a new owner. From there, Beauty is sold on to a series of different owners, each one further from her life at Birtwick. All the while, Jo saves her money and keeps searching for Beauty, never losing hope that the two will eventually be reunited.
Is it any good?
Every generation seems to get its filmed version of Black Beauty, and as with most beloved classics, this one is likely to elicit mixed reactions. Horse lovers and fans of the story will appreciate the reverent treatment of the majestic mustang. Indicative of this, the poster image comes from a memorable sequence of Jo astride a galloping Beauty, both their long, dark manes flowing in the ocean breeze, a golden light glowing from behind. Perhaps intentionally, the film doesn't feel especially contemporary in look or characterizations, beyond one scene where teenagers use their smart phones to film a peer falling off her horse, though there are feminist messages in female Beauty, and mares uniquely lead mustang herds, we're told.
Those unfamiliar with the tale could find the voiceover narration by the horse a little off-putting at first. "A wise horse once told me," the film begins and ends, and in between, Beauty muses about human laziness, loses her temper with a bratty teen, and misses her family. She seems, well, all too human – and at times, thanks to the great Kate Winslet, even a more authentic character than some of the people in the movie. What this story has in all of its versions is the profound, loving, almost spiritual connection between human and animal. So many people have experienced that bond themselves, which could make it hard for them to escape getting caught up in the emotions of this film.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about what the original story of Black Beauty has that makes it a work of persistent fascination for generations, resulting in many adaptations before this one. What's the appeal?
If you've seen other versions of this story, how does this one compare?
How does the film depict Beauty and Jo to be similar in experience and temperament?
How do Beauty and Jo show perseverance and resilience? Why are these positive character traits?
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