American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
"I dreamed of what was, and I dreamed of what might have been." No, that's not a quote from John F. Kennedy, Marianne Williamson or even Neil Diamond, but a horse, which narrates "Black Beauty" as if the movie's a form of sensitivity training. The movie is based on Anna Sewell's 1877 children's classic, and is set in the original period, Victorian England. But it plays like a cross between New Age mysticism and anthropomorphism run amok.
It's not that I object to movies that humanize animals. Why, not long ago I was giving measured praise to "Lassie," in which a dog is so clever it steals a teenage boy's Walkman earphones to lure him outdoors. What I object to is the soppiness of "Black Beauty," in which the horse-narrator comes across like a spokesanimal for Greenpeace.
"My mother told me that we had to share the grass with others," we hear, early in the film, and then we see the little colt nibbling grass, intercut with closeups of butterflies, spiders and others with whom it is presumably happy to share. Although I believe dogs care about humans, I do not believe that horses care about spiders, unless they are bitten by one. Call me a curmudgeon.
The movie tells the story of Beauty's life, from the horse's early days in the stables of an idyllic English country house, to its later adventures pulling the carriage of a snotty lady, working as a taxi horse, and finally hauling heavy freight wagons. It's downhill all the way, until the happy ending, where Beauty is put out to pasture.