This is at least the fourth screen version of Anna Sewell's classic 1877 children's novel, and the only one to approximate the spirit of its source. Told from the point of view of the title horse, writer-director Caroline Thompson's ^IBlack Beauty^R follows the four-footed character's odyssey from an English pastoral ponyhood through a series of ever-increasing miseries, and back to the country for a paradisal old age.^L ^C5 A horse narrating his memoirs in cultured tones on the soundtrack takes some getting used to, and at times Thompson's script comes close to anthropomorphic preciousness. The filmmaker, whose directorial debut this is, has set herself the task of creating a cohesive narrative out of painstakingly edited images of farm animals, and the strain sometimes shows. Among Black Beauty's owners are such excellent actors as Sean Bean, Jim Carter, Andrew Knott, and ^INaked^R's David Thewlis, who cuts a marvelous figure as a London cabbie in a bowler hat. But the human cast are supporting players.^L ^C5 As for the horse chosen to be protagonist, he is a magnificent animal, fully living up to his character's name. With the assistance of cinematographer Alex Thomson and composer Danny Elfman, Thompson ultimately succeeds in bestowing a lovely lyrical quality on the material. It should be noted that ^IBlack Beauty^R is not a soft experience; Sewell wrote her book to call attention to the mistreatment of work horses, and the camera does not shy away from suffering and death. Instead, it may provide children with a compassionate introduction to the sadness that can characterize both human and animal life.
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