Written in 1877, Anna Sewell’s classic children’s novel “Black Beauty” warned against the abuse of horses. The pristine adaptation streaming on Disney+ is a melodrama in need of rougher edges. Directed by Ashley Avis (a former competitive equestrian), the movie is set in the present-day United States and features two female protagonists: the fiery mustang Black Beauty (voiced by Kate Winslet) and the recently orphaned Jo (Mackenzie Foy), now living with her uncle John (Iain Glen), training horses at Birtwick Stables.
Angry at the world, Jo softens after meeting Beauty, a kindred spirit without a family, too. On the ranch’s sun-kissed pastures, the girl and horse heal each other, until a fire destroys the stables at Birtwick. Struggling financially, John leases Beauty as a show horse to a wealthy equestrian family, the Winthrops, for their spoiled tween daughter Georgina (Fern Deacon). Jo despises Georgina’s abusiveness toward Beauty — the brat kicks holes into the horse — yet Jo still falls for Georgina’s dreamy older brother, George (Calam Lynch). Ultimately, Birtwick sells Beauty out from under Jo. Beauty, now forced to work for new owners, endures hardships: She performs grueling rescues of lost hikers and later pulls carriages through Central Park.
Though Winslet is the marquee name on the cast list, “Black Beauty” materializes not as the horse’s story, but Jo’s. Unfortunately, even that character’s grief is underwritten as she pines for a daydream teen romance and a reunion with her steadfast horse, rather than ever revisiting her parents’ death. Avis loses the novel’s sincerity by watering down Sewell’s animal welfare plea. In this update, the humans are not as villainous. Beauty is not as prominent. And the novel’s mustang spirit diminishes into a ho-hum horse movie.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour and 49 minutes. Watch on Disney+.