“Black Beauty” gives the original Victorian novel a significant makeover, a contemporary remake that relocates the story to the American West. The movie delivers a more pointed animal-rights message, but while its equine star fares well enough, the two-footed characters never really get out of the starting gate.
“A mustang’s spirit can never be broken,” the wild horse of the title, whose thoughts are voiced by Kate Winslet, says at the outset, a statement that will be tested over the course of the movie.
Previously adapted in 1971 and 1994, Anna Sewell’s book has become a children’s literary classic, and the central girl-and-her-horse story dovetails with the brand for Disney+ — another entry for the kid-and-animal live-action bin, dating back to “Old Yeller.” Small wonder the streaming service acquired the completed film, which would have been a tough sell theatrically.
The narrative, however, moves at a pace much closer to a trot than a gallop, as the horse is caught and turned over to trainer John Manly (“Game of Thrones'” Iain Glen), a taciturn fellow who soon receives another new arrival: His recently orphaned teenage niece, Jo (Mackenzie Foy).
Both outsiders, the bond between the girl and the horse as executed here by writer-director Ashley Avis brings to mind “The Black Stallion,” including a shot of the two running along the beach that seems like an homage to it.
The story comes up a bit lame, alas, when Jo and Beauty move to a farm owned by a wealthy family, prompting the imperious matriarch (Claire Forlani) to snap “Our son’s fraternizing with the help” when their dreamy kid (Calam Lynch) begins spending time with Jo.
Beauty’s struggles don’t end there, as her move to the city exposes more of the mistreatment that horses endure in captivity, prompting her to ask in the narration, “How could some people not understand that horses can feel what they do?”
As well-intentioned as the film appears to be, it’s ultimately too inert, even with the changes, to make this familiar story leap off the page. “Black Beauty” isn’t bad, exactly, but rather the kind of flavorless fare that underscores how hard really good family viewing is to corral.
“Black Beauty” premieres Nov. 27 on Disney+.