Life’s only constant is change. Just ask the horse.
She didn’t start off with a name at first—not one that we’d know, anyway. Wild mustangs, reared on the seemingly endless plains of America, speak their own language. And they don’t care a whit whether we understand them or not.
But it wasn’t long before the horse noticed new visitors on the glorious land where she was born: Sheep. Cattle. Strange, large, metallic things with smaller creatures sitting inside. Soon she saw those “smaller creatures” getting out of their moving metal boxes. And even though the horse was much stronger and faster than them all, the creatures—humans, apparently—were wily and determined. Soon she and the rest of her herd were rounded up and carted away. The horse was separated from her land, her family, everything she’d ever known. She couldn’t even say goodbye.
The horse didn’t like this change one little bit. But more change was coming: A hat-wearing human named John bought her and brought her east, all the way to New York state. He wanted to “break” her, apparently: to get her to the point where she’d accept one of those (ugh) humans to ride on her back.
But as John tried in vain to break her, the horse met another human, different from the rest. Her name was Jo, and she’d experienced her own bitter changes. Her parents had died in a car crash, and she’d been forced to live with John. She, too, was in an unknown land surrounded by strangers.
Maybe, the horse thought, they could be alone together.
Slowly, the horse and human got to know each other. They grew closer. And the horse grew so comfortable with Jo that she allowed the girl to give her things: a bridle, a saddle and, most importantly, a name: Beauty. Black Beauty.
Beauty had lost her first family but found another. Her name was Jo, and all was good. If they could be together for all the rest of their days, they’d both be happy.
But change comes to everyone, even horses. And Beauty had better be ready.
The first part of Black Beauty focuses on Beauty and Jo’s relationship—and how, in a sense, they heal each other. Both show up to Birtwick Stables (where John works as the head horseman) angry. And had it not been for each other, both would’ve found themselves in a world of hurt: An untamed Beauty would’ve been shipped off to places unknown and suffer a far worse fate. And Jo, wallowing in her grief and anger, would’ve been (as Beauty says) just a broken spirit. But slowly, the two work on each other, moving toward a place of hope and happiness. That journey prepares each for the hardships to come.
We should note that John serves an important role in that rehabilitation, too. While neither the horse nor Jo (John’s niece and responsibility) trust the horseman much when they first meet him, he slowly wins Jo over with his unflagging patience—the same sort of patience he shows his horses as he trains them.
The stable itself is an exercise in altruism. The owner takes in a handful of wild mustangs every year, training them to the point where they can be bought by others. John and his boss are trying to save as many horses as possible from unfulfilling (and perhaps brief) lives in government custody.
Beauty doesn’t stay with Jo and John forever, though. She’s bought and sold many times. Some of her owners and caretakers are quite kind, caring for her fastidiously (even if they make her work pretty hard). Terry, a member of a wilderness rescue team, is a good example. He and Beauty go into the wilderness to rescue stranded or injured people—often risking their own lives to do so. But while Terry asks Beauty to do some pretty dangerous things, he cares for the horse deeply, too. And while Terry’s no replacement for Jo, Beauty still knows a good owner when she sees one.
Throughout her life, Beauty learns a litany of lessons: How showing kindness is so much better (and often more effective) than dealing with problems in anger; that sometimes circumstances require you to be bold and fearless; that hope can help you persevere when things seem their darkest.
Mustangs, apparently, believe in an afterlife. Beauty recalls that her mother told her all about it—how, when she passed on, “She would always watch over me from her bed in the stars.” When Beauty meets Jo, she wishes that she could speak in human words to pass on that bit of comfort to the girl; that Jo’s parents were probably watching over her, too.
We hear a couple of sincere exclamations referencing God.
[Spoiler Warning] Jo later meets a guy named George, and we later learn that the two of them get married. We see them kiss and touch hands.
A teen wears slightly tight clothing and a dress that comes up above the knees.
Two men face serious peril in a raging river. One has his leg caught beneath a boulder; the other is swept away by the current and smacks his head.
A few riders fall, or are bucked off, horses, though none are seriously hurt. Beauty plays a “game” with a young groom, chasing him out of a corral each morning and forcing him to dive through gaps in the corral fence for his own safety. Someone gets seriously ill. We hear briefly about the accident that killed Jo’s parents.
Horses are mistreated. One suffers spur wounds (we don’t see any blood, but we do glimpse the hairless indentations the spurs left behind. A horse throws a shoe and steps on a sharp object, sending both horse and rider sprawling. (The doctor bandages the wound later and says it was a miracle the horse didn’t break its leg.)
A worn-out horse lies down in the middle of a city street. We see the corpse of a horse—mostly covered—being carted away. We hear that sometimes unruly horses are used to make glue, and we see a few horses nearly taken to meet their untimely demise (though the movie doesn’t explicitly say so).
A stable catches fire: Only swift and sacrificial work by someone prevents the horses inside from being killed.
We hear a couple of misuses of God’s name.
Champagne appears to be served at a very ritzy party.
Jo treats John disrespectfully at times. Some of Beauty’s owners mistreat her. One such owner, a wealthy socialite, allows her abusive daughter free rein (if you will) over Beauty, and she looks down her nose at “the help,” which includes Jo (who’s been hired as a groom). When she notices that her son, George, is showing an interest in Jo, she tries her best to forbid the relationship: George explodes at her mother, telling her that Jo is “10 times the person you are,” and storms off. (Beauty approves of George’s attitude.)
Some of Jo’s peers are pretty mean to her. When they spot Jo carting off a wheelbarrow full of manure, they see some of the brown stuff on her face and mock her because of it. Jo pushes one of them into a pile of hay, getting a bit of gunk on the other girl’s arm in the process.
The original Black Beauty rode into being in 1877—the creation of author Anna Sewell in a book of the same name. Though Sewell lived just five months after the book’s publication, she was able to see just what a nerve it touched. It eventually sold more than 50 million copies.
Disney+’s version of Black Beauty has been updated, moving the horse from Victorian England to the contemporary United States. And just as the original Black Beauty campaigned against overworked horses in London, Disney draws viewers’ attention to another, more modern conundrum: what to do with America’s wild horses on overpopulated public lands.
It’s possible that families for whom that issue hits closer to home—those from farms and ranches, for instance—might take issue with Beauty’s obviously horse-centric take on this issue here. In fact, Beauty is near-anthropomorphism in this story. The fact that she comes across as more person than animal here, complete with a soul, may trouble viewers uncomfortable with blurring the line between man and animal. After all, Beauty comes across as morally superior to many of her owners.
But that concern, paired with a couple of misuses of God’s name and a few moments of peril, are really the only cautions we have with Disney+’s sweet, sensible Black Beauty.
Beauty holds a lot of wisdom underneath her glossy hide. She serves as a faithful servant, trusted helpmate and, yes, valued friend. She helps a teen girl overcome her grief and find her way. She serves as a model of courage and determination, even as the humans around her show the value of patience and kindness and love. And the heroes here—both human and animal—remind us that when times get tough, perseverance can spur toward a brighter tomorrow.
“Hope can be a very powerful thing if you can manage to hold onto it,” Beauty tells us in narrative mode. Black Beauty’s been carrying that message to a bevy of fans for more than 150 years now. And this movie could well bear that message to another new generation—likely galloping into many a child’s heart.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.