DOG-AND-PONY SHOWS

After human beings, the cinema probably doesn't have a greater visual subject, among living creatures, than the horse. I say this as no particular horse fancier in real life, but as an admirer of horses in movies, a medium far more suited to the beauties of the species than painting or still photography. The magnificence of the equine form probably has a great deal more to do with the success of the Western genre than is generally noted.

I had thought it improbable that any horse movie could rival, for me, Carroll Ballard's joyously primal 1979 adaptation of Walter Farley's The Black Stallion, but Caroline Thompson has made one that does. Her new version of Black Beauty, which she also scripted, is one of the most emotionally compelling children's films I've ever seen. Thompson, a prolific and usually admirable screenwriter of kiddy flicks--Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas and Agnieszka Holland's The Secret Garden are among her credits--has, in her directing debut, translated the simple, linear narrative of the classic yarn to the screen with plainsong poetry. The novel is the only literary work of a Quaker invalid named Anna Sewell, who died in 1878, just a few months after its first publication. Sewell, an upper-middle-class Englishwoman with a lifelong affinity for horses, wrote the book in a religious-activist spirit, to encourage their kind treatment by cabbies and stable boys, and also as a critique of such aristocratic outrages as the "bearing rein," which forced carriage horses, for the sake of fashion, to hold their heads up in what was, for them, an awkward position. Those who imagine that the animal-rights movement is a new phenomenon might be surprised to learn that decency toward horses was no small issue in the middle of the 19th century, when urbanization and the swelling middle class created a boom in horse ownership, in the use of horse-drawn cabs and, inevitably, in mistreatment of the animals. Black Beauty was immediately adopted by horse partisans as propaganda--one of the first American editions, published in 1890 by the founder of the American Humane Education Society, was actually titled Black Beauty: The Uncle Tom's Cabin of the Horse.

Sewell's main device for generating sympathy is that the title character, an English stallion whose rocky career comprises the plot, tells his own story in the first person. Thompson reproduces this. Beauty speaks to us in voice-over, narrating his adventures in the thick, gentle burr of Alan Cumming. It was a risky choice--it could have come across cute or patronizing, like the insultingly jocular narration that old-fashioned nature documentaries sometimes had. But Thompson, with Cumming's help, makes it work, makes us take it seriously. Thompson's writing of this narration, which accounts for most of the words we hear spoken in the course of the film, is at least equal to Sewell's (in the book, Beauty occasionally sounds a bit like a smug, social-climbing yeoman). The first line in the film is Beauty's assertion, "The story of my life is the story of the people in it." This turns out not to be sentimental, but a plain statement of the film's theme--horses are dependent on the whims of humans for their well-being or lack thereof. Beauty is in service, at one point or another, to the whole spectrum of English society--he's born and initially raised by kindly country gentry; sold to and abused by loathsome blue bloods (Peter Cook and Eleanor Bron); injured through the negligence of a drunken servant; sold again to find misery as a horse for rent; sold again to find happiness pulling a cab for a poor, good-hearted young cabbie (David Thewlis of Naked!); and so forth.

Through it all, he's patient and long-suffering and loyal even to those who mistreat him. He also carries a lifelong torch for an ill-fatedly tempestuous filly named Ginger, and a brotherly fondness for a little pony called Merrylegs.

Not every element of the story ends happily. Beauty continually suffers separation from those, human and equine, whom he loves. This, too, is part of the theme--that whatever happens to a domesticated animal, good and bad, is out of its control. Both the joy and the terrifying oppression in the story are presented in a way that pulls no punches, yet it isn't like the sort of cheap-shot emotional assaults that children's-movie makers sometimes resort to. Thompson clearly understands how to engage the emotions of children without simply going for their jugulars. The horrors in the story add up, they make dramatic sense; they aren't just there to give the kids an upsetting jolt. It would be a mistake, however, to praise this Black Beauty only for Thompson's skill at adaptation. It's also a visual feast for horse lovers, and not only for them. Thompson and cinematographer Alex Thomson fill the screen with lovely studies of everything from insects, toads and foxes, to blue-blood children at play, to the teeming squalor of Victorian London streets.

Trainer Rex Peterson kept the acting of the horses from ever seeming, even for a moment, like trained behavior, an illusion no doubt helped by Claire Simpson's fluid editing. Backing everything up is a stirring, flavorful music score by Danny Elfman. The persuasiveness of the horses' performances--especially in the disturbing scene in which the infuriated Ginger breaks her reins--leads to the only major qualm one might have about Black Beauty: How sure can we be that they were acting? The idea that horses might have been ill-treated to make this film is about as ripe and rotten an irony as can be conceived. Though it can't hold a candle to Black Beauty, another current animal movie for kids, Lassie, isn't quite the mechanical write-off I dreaded going in.

The plot is puerile, but the film, directed by Daniel Petrie, is surprisingly handsome to look at--the opening shot, an aerial view of Lassie driving a herd of sheep over a hill, with sheep forming striking patterns around her, is splendid. And Thomas Guiry, who plays Lassie's companion, is a glum little crud with a set jaw whose performance keeps the story from cloying too badly.

Guiry and family are city folk, trying to make a go of sheep farming in rural Virginia. Although she, too, is a collie who could probably qualify for Mensa membership, the title character is not supposed to be the old Lassie of TV; cleverly, she's a stray that the family picks up at the roadside, and names after the TV wonderdog. She proceeds to cure Guiry of his withdrawal into rock music, lead him to his deceased mother's diary and reconcile him to his well-meaning stepmother (Helen Slater). At the same time, Lassie's obvious expertise in the latest animal-husbandry techniques proves invaluable to the novice farmers. For the sake of enjoying the prettiness of the film, it's possible to overlook the absurdities of Lassie's prescience, and even the clumsily conceived villainies of a rival sheep farmer (Frederic Forrest). What is irksome is the insistence with which Petrie and the screenwriters keep slipping in pious little plugs for a return to wholesome family entertainment of the old school. At the beginning of the film, for instance, Guiry changes channels from an old Lassie rerun his sister is watching to MTV; later on, Lassie, who, of course, knows best, pulls the headphones off the kid's belt and runs off with them. I'm no fan of MTV, and no doubt the old Lassie show was harmless enough. But it was also square and maudlin, and representative of a kind of children's entertainment that was lacking in human pungency. I watched the show for years myself, as a kid, and I can't say it made me a finer person in any way of which I'm aware. It's the disreputable shows, like cartoons, which have stayed close to my heart. If, today, a Lassie rerun came on while I was watching TV, I'd probably turn the channel--to MTV, in fact, if Beavis and Butt-head were on.

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