Since its release in 1877, Black Beauty has been published more than 50 million times and seen at least a dozen screen and stage adaptations—most notably for this millennial, a 1994 film version featuring David Thewlis, Sean Bean, and Alan Cumming as the voice of Beauty. With a built-in audience like that it’s obvious why Disney wanted to get in on the horse story action with their own 2020 version. The result is less an adaptation of Anna Sewell’s original work and more a hodgepodge of horse-girl narrative tropes with some Black Beauty names and loose plot points slapped on for the brand recognition, which is not to say that there isn’t an audience for this—just that it isn’t for fans of the novel looking for a faithful adaptation of the classic.
In its original form, Black Beauty: His Grooms and Companions, the Autobiography of a Horse follows the eponymous horse from his days as a carefree foal on an English farm to his life of hardship as a cab horse in London. Eventually he is able to retire to the country with Joe, a kind human he met in his youth at Birtwick Park. In addition to the human characters, mostly comprised of Beauty’s various owners, there are many horse and pony characters featured in the book. Through Beauty’s perspective on his life and the lives of the humans and horses around him, the reader gets a melodramatic yet comprehensive look at life in Victorian England.
In Disney’s latest version, the story is moved to modern day American, and its focus is much more evenly divided between Beauty (voiced by Kate Winslet) and her first, best human friend Jo (Mackenzie Foy, previously seen in The Nutcracker and the Four Realms). Here Beauty is a mustang taken from the wild and separated from her herd and mother at a young age. She is rescued from a vaguely ominous fate by a kindly horse trainer named John (Game of Thrones‘ Iain Glen, trying his best with the thin characterization) and brought to New York’s Birtwick Stables. Once there she meets teen orphan Jo, who has come to live with her uncle John following the untimely deaths of her parents. What follows is the stuff of horse-girl dreams: a bond between horse and human that is so special and eternal that no one else can truly understand.
Black Beauty remains one of the OG horse-girl books, even though the original book features neither a main girl character nor was it intended for children. But Horse Girl Canon is more about the bond than it is the horse or the human individually. As recently defined by Polygon: “Horse Girls come in all genders. What bonds these kids is a longing for the Romantic Ideal of the equine. This Platonic horse represents a refusal to be tamed, an inherent beauty, and a superhuman strength; and anyone who proves themselves worthy of a horse’s trust takes on those traits by proxy. It’s a power fantasy that strains against the reins of a culture that tells young people that they can be strong and independent—or they can be beautiful. Now choose.”
Disney’s Black Beauty adaptation is all in on Horse Girl Canon. However, it is not interested in moving the canon forward as a foundational text, as the original Black Beauty would eventually become, but rather in telling the most basic of horse-girl tales: Human meets horse, human rides horse, and human and horse fall in love. Human and horse are dramatically separated, and human and horse are brought back together by the power of their connection. Writer-director Ashley Avis hits all the plot points and throws in some fantastically pretty shots in the process, yet there is a lack of texture (both visually and narratively) that keeps this film from graduating from serviceable horse-girl film to something greater both within and outside the limits of Horse Girl Canon.
When Sewell wrote Black Beauty: His Grooms and Companions, the Autobiography of a Horse, she had a very specific mission in mind: to shine a light on Victorian era animal cruelty by telling a story from a horse’s point-of-view. And it worked. The book led to the abolishment of the use of the “bearing rein,” a type of rein that forces a horse to raise its head and arch its neck. In the process, Sewell created a working class parable. Black Beauty is the story of a horse, sure, but it is the story of a life of hard labor, one in which the course of Beauty’s life is completely outside of her own control. This isn’t just a story about a society that sees horses as cogs in an industrial machine; it is a story about a society that treats people this way, as well.
Disney+’s Black Beauty, like so many adaptations, is a modern retelling that focuses on reimagining much of the plot, characters, and scenarios of the period source material for contemporary audiences, without giving the theme the same modern update. What does a call to action for greater kindness toward animals and working class people look like in modern America? This adaptation is not interested in genuinely exploring that question (though it probably wouldn’t take place in a suburban New York horse stable—143 years after Black Beauty‘s initial publication, horses are no longer a part of most people’s everyday life), which is disappointing but fine. The larger problem is it doesn’t come up with a compelling theme to take its place. Instead it half-heartedly spouts generically bland morals like “be nice to horses” and give viewers a superficial exploration of deep loss.
Sewell’s original tale, written by the author in the final months of her life, is not afraid to showcase the often horrific, unfair realities of the world. Narratively, the depictions of these moments of struggle and pain make the moments of joys that much sweeter. In the 2020 version, the struggles lack depth and specificity. We are told Jo’s parents died tragically in a car accident but we never get any details about who they were or what they meant to her. The film insists that Birtwick Stables is struggling financially but puts no effort into depicting what that might look like. Rather the stables is open and functional one day and closed the next. The joyful moments are shallow too, undercutting the catharsis and complexity of the novel’s bittersweet ending.
So who is this film for? Never underestimate the market for girls and other kids who love horse media. As alluded to above in that Polygon quote, Horse Girl Canon is the rare kind of story targeted towards kids (and girls in particular) that doesn’t make them choose between a fantasy of domesticity and a fantasy of power. Because of that, there will always be an audience for a horse-girl film like 2020’s Black Beauty. But Disney+’s reimagined adaptation has been stripped of its thematic ambition, and is the poorer for it.
Black Beauty is available to watch on Disney+ starting Nov. 27.