The Virginian-Pilot
                             THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT 
              Copyright (c) 1994, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: Thursday, August 4, 1994               TAG: 9408040038
TYPE: Movie Review 
                                             LENGTH: Medium:   79 lines


IT WOULD BE a mistake to dismiss the new film version of ``Black Beauty'' as just another kid movie. As written and directed by Caroline Thompson, the film is both literate and darkly dramatic. It is the only film version of the classic Anna Sewell novel that sticks to the original premise - a horse's story of going from owner to owner, a world in which ``sold'' is a dreaded word.

As told in the words of Black Beauty himself, narrated with gentle passion by Alan Cumming, ``mine is the story of trust and betrayal, and learning to trust again.''

It takes a bit of adjustment to accept that the drama is told by the horse. But this is no Mr. Ed outing. With painstaking attention to period detail, this is a drama of cruelty to animals against the background of Victorian hypocrisy. Thompson is one of Hollywood's most prolific and intelligent writers. It was she who wrote the equally dark and intelligent version of the children's classic ``Secret Garden'' and the hit fantasy ``Edward Scissorhands.'' She also gathered experience with talking animals when she wrote the hilarious ``Homeward Bound'' for Disney. Here, she is intent upon preserving the integrity of the 1877 novel and, consequently, she refused to allow anyone else to direct her script. For that, we can be thankful.

The film is greatly aided by the production design of John Box, who has won four Oscars for four of the most eye-boggling classics in film history: ``Lawrence of Arabia,'' ``Doctor Zhivago,'' ``Oliver!'' and ``Nicholas and Alexandra.'' His use of cobblestone streets and mire to suggest the evils of London works again here.

The full-blown musical score is by Danny Elfman, who composed the ``Batman'' scores and was last heard with the offbeat ``Nightmare Before Christmas.''

These are major talents. This film can not be dismissed as a remake. Forget the 1946 version with Mona Freeman, which disfigured the title by selling it as a little girl in love with her horse, or the 1971 edition with Mark Lester, which changed it to a tale of a wild horse who couldn't be tamed. Both used only the title.

Although commendable, this new film may not be liked by children. It is dark and poignant - dealing with multiple mistreatments of Black Beauty at the hands of cruel owners. There are happy times, though, and there is the requisite excitement engendered by an escape from a burning stable. Black Beauty falls in love with the haughty Ginger and admires the spunk of the pony Merrylegs. (None of the animals other than Beauty has a voice-over.) Only in hyping up the initial flirtation between Ginger and Beauty does the writer depart from the book in any major way.

The film's episodic nature may work against sustained involvement, but it shows us Black Beauty's nomadic existence. Of the cast, David Thwelis is most notable in contributing a likable portrayal as Beauty's cab-driving owner. It's a marked contrast to his startling sleazeball role in ``Naked,'' which won him the Cannes Film Festival award and the New York Film Critics Award. If you saw ``Naked,'' you'll hardly be able to believe this is the same man.

Children may well be traumatized by the darkness of the drama but that, after all, is what drama is all about. Parents must decide if their children are too young to learn that there is a darker side to life - and, specifically, to the lives of animals. ILLUSTRATION: WARNER BROS. Photo

Andrew Knott cares for his favorite charge, Black Beauty, in the new

film version of the classic Anna Sewell story.

MOVIE REVIEW ``Black Beauty''

Cast: Sean Bean, David Thewlis, Jim Carter, Peter Davison, Andrew


Director and Writer: Caroline Thompson

MPAA rating: G (tense, sometimes traumatic)

Mal's rating: 3 Stars

Locations: Greenbrier in Chesapeake, Circle 4 and Main Gate in

Norfolk, Lynnhaven Mall in Virginia Beach

by CNB