Pony up the dough in the dog days of August, kids: Black Beauty and Lassie are back, groomed to win over a new generation through family entertainment values of old. In an era in which Nintendo has supplanted Hula-Hoops and warm, fuzzy feelings are symptoms of the flu, there's really only one question to ask of these throwbacks (besides what it means that Black Beauty and Lassie both have variations on the same birthmark, a splash of white on the nose): do they have enough animal magnetism to keep high- tech children (of all ages, of course) watching?
Black Beauty does. Its stirring adventures are filled with so much heart, spirit and, yes, beauty that it puts Disney's superficial The Lion King to shame. Perfunctory Lassie, on the other hand, can't compete with either. It's a bitch to say, but Lassie is about as inspired as dog food.
"Mine is a story of trust and betrayal and of learning to trust again," is the narration that begins Black Beauty. This straightforward pronouncement, one of many that never panders to the audience, comes straight from the horse's mouth: resting on a grassy spot, Black Beauty, lovely and majestic, recounts his varied existence. A movie from a horse's point of view might seem bizarre or misguided, but director Caroline Thompson, who also wrote the screenplay, actually took her nod from Anna Sewell's 1877 novel, which is subtitled "The Autobiography of a Horse." Thompson's film, as opposed to earlier versions in which human characters are of central concern, stresses what Sewell stressed and what has made the book a generational treasure: the life and times of the noble steed.
Set up as a series of flashbacks, the film begins with Black Beauty's birth, which occurs matter-of-factly on-screen. (One of the movie's many feats was to capture on film the birth of a foal that happened to have a white star shape set in the middle of its forehead.).
"It was cold and too bright and strange in the air," says Black Beauty, wobbling to his knees in the soft hay of a rustic barn, "but then my mother kissed me." Beauty grows up in the idyllic, pastoral English countryside, learning to abide a saddle, discovering yummy oats, making friends with a frisky little pony named Merrylegs and falling in love with spirited mare Ginger. What makes these scenes immensely enjoyable is how expressive the horses are: when first asked to accept a mount, Black Beauty's legs buckle in respectful but clear resistance; when in the lush green fields, he canters around Ginger as if trying to woo her and she, uninterested, keeps her distance; when he's happy, he gallops free and easy; when he's sold, he nuzzles his mother as if in sorrowful good-bye.
The well-known story includes both cruel and humane owners, knee injuries, fun and games, sad partings, joyous reunions. Thompson, a first-time director who has written screenplays for Edward Scissorhands and The Secret Garden, first adopted the point of view of animals in Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey. What she does particularly well here is compensate for the ingrained ruefulness of Sewell's novel, in which villainy is not bad guys in a cartoon sense, but simple unmindfulness. Thompson's treatment ultimately celebrates the beauty of morality, how elegant and yet how simple it can be. Legendary production designer John Box (four-time Academy Award winner for Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, Oliver and Nicholas and Alexandra), finds locales that perfectly reflect Black Beauty's search for kindness, from bucolic rolling pastures to groomed gardens to London's tawdry cobblestone streets. Danny Elfman, who has scored, among others, all of Tim Burton's movies, subtly enhances the spectrum of sentiment by providing music that spurs and ambles, prances and paces. David Thewlis, who was so incendiary in Naked, is astonishingly good as a kind-hearted cabbie. Also on hand in the large, excellent cast are Peter Cook and Eleanor Bron as puffed-up aristocrats.
At one point, Black Beauty observes, "We don't get to choose the people in our lives." Maybe he doesn't, but Lassie does. And that's one of the problems in the dubious, stunted new movie. After the collie miraculously emerges from a horrible traffic accident totally unscathed -- but in which her owner and the people in the other vehicle are killed -- she spots a good-looking family on the side of the road, follows them for miles and, when the chance arises, hops in the back seat. The family, city folk moving to the Shenandoah Valley to make a new start, decide to keep her, and, as it turns out, it's a good thing they do: not only does Lassie help them become sheep ranchers (she locates abandoned lambs, fends off poachers and barks encouragement at her new family while they race to build corrals in time for some deadline or other), but she also serves as a catalyst for the son in the family to stop grieving over his dead mother and begin accepting his new stepmother. And to take notice of a nice neighborhood 4-H girl. And to get wise to a bad guy who's usurping their grazing land. (He's evil because he chews tobacco, wears a black hat and calls sheep "just wool and good eatin'.") And... and she does all this without getting her fur ruffled. Literally.
Despite being filled with capable human actors (Jon Tenney as the dad, Helen Slater as the step-mom, Thomas Guiry as the boy, Richard Farnsworth as the grandpa, Frederic Forrest as the what-passes-for bad guy), Lassie is little more than a bunch of dog tricks. See Lassie jump out of barns (and bark that bark), herd runaway sheep (and bark), break up fights (and bark), snatch the boy's Walkman headphones and, barking, force him to commune with nature, bark and give knowing looks at human conversation, bark and swim across rapids to save drowning kids while overwrought parents run along the shore, bark to warn people of oncoming danger and then bark and run to take care of the problem herself and then bark when, after all is said and done, her barking manages to turn the bad guys good.
The difficulty isn't Lassie's saving the day, for lots of Lassies have done this, starting with the original dog in the 1943 Lassie Come Home. The difficulty for this eighth-generation descendant is twofold: the plot line is scant, even for little kids, and the dog can't, um, act. Unlike in Black Beauty, there's no realism in Lassie, and the unfortunate thing is that it sets itself up to be realistic. Both films depict loyalty and love, bravery and pride, but only one depiction is successful. Black Beauty is modest; Lassie wants to be. The former has hardships in it; the latter is hard to believe.
"I thought I told you not to watch this crap," the boy says to his little sister, turning off a rerun of the television show Lassie. Director Daniel Petrie should have done the same. Because you know things are seriously awry when the opening aerial shot has Lassie running gloriously across a luscious hilltop a la The Sound of Music but later has her trotting in montages set to the Beatles, Dylan and the Allman Brothers. If Black Beauty were to see Lassie, where all the country residents seem to wear plaids and overalls, his gaze, even though it has experienced the vagaries of human nature, would become wild-eyed.