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Black Beauty Review: Disney+ Movie Leans Into the Horse Girl Tropes

Disney’s Black Beauty adaptation is all in on Horse Girl Canon. However, it is not interesting 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.

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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.

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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.

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Joseph Ellis

Joseph is an experienced freelance journalist. He has worked as a journalist for a few online print-based magazines for around 3 years. He brings together substantial news bulletins from the field of Technology and US. He joined the Sunriseread team for taking the website to the heights.

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