This remarkable adaptation of Walter Farley's classic children’s novel by Carroll Ballard—in which an American boy is rescued after a shipwreck off the coast of North Africa by a seemingly untamable wild horse—is a cinematic tour de force. From the crystalline shores of a deserted island in the Arabian Sea to the green grass and dusty roads of 1930s suburban New York, Ballard and director of photography Caleb Deschanel create a film of consistent visual invention and purity, also featuring a winning supporting performance by Mickey Rooney as a retired jockey and a gorgeous score by Carmine Coppola.
Based on Walter Farley's 1941 novel of the same name, the first of twenty in the series, 'The Black Stallion' is a marvelous film that tells a story about the relationship between a young boy named Alec Ramsay (Kelly Reno in his acting debut) and a horse, referred to as "the Black." It's a wonderfully refreshing reminder from the cast and crew that a well-made children's film by talented people can be more than a glorified toy catalog
Traveling with his father (Hoyt Axton) aboard a ship off the coast of North Africa 1946, Alec discovers a horse trying to be controlled by a group of men. He later gives the horse some cubes of sugar, which angers its owner. During the night, his father comes back from a poker game and gives his son some of his winnings, a pocketknife and a figurine of Alexander the Great's horse Bucephalus.
Alec is awoken by the commotion of the ship sinking. He rushes to free the Black and they end up in the water together. It's a tense, chaotic scene with the darkness, smoke, and fire making it intentionally difficult to clearly see what is going. Director Carroll Ballard, cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, and their crew made great choices as the sense of danger it evokes makes the situation believable and shows children (and adults) that life has scary moments.
Alec awakes on an island and he and the Black must continue to work together in order for both of them to survive, just as they did on the boat. Even with the dialogue understandably at a minimum, the audience is shown the characters' bond growing stronger. Their exploits on the island seem enough for one story and yet their greatest adventure waits back in the states once they meet retired jockey Henry Dailey (Mickey Rooney), who sees great promise in the Black's running abilities.
Outside of animation, I can’t remember a children's film having such high technical standards. Part of the credit goes to the crew members led by Caleb Deschanel, who was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the American Society of Cinematographers for his great work and career, and Sound Editor Alan Splet, whose work was awarded a Special Achievement Oscar because the Academy didn't have a Sound category at the time.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Black Stallion' (#765 in The Criterion Collection) comes on a 50GB Region A Blu-ray disc in a clear keepcase. The discs boot up directly to the menu screen without any promotional advertisements. Included is a folded leaflet containing the essay "Nirvana on Horseback" by Michael Sragow.
The video has been given a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 1.85:1. "Supervised by director of photography Caleb Deschanel, this new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution on a Scanity film scanner from the 35 mm original camera negative; the film was then restored in 2K resolution. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, and warps were manually removed using MTI's DRS, while Digital Visions Phoenix was used for small dirt, grain, noise management, flicker, and jitter." according to the liner notes.
In the beginning, a healthy amount of film grain can be seen against the gray sky and it remains over the course of the film. It increases in a few exposition scenes of nature on the island, almost as if stock footage was used rather than shot by same equipment and also during the pre-dawn training with Henry. Blacks are inky and colors shine with rich, vibrant hues as seen in the bright orange of the fire and the spectrum of jockey uniforms.
The focus can be soft during Alec's time on the ship, but images look much sharper during the bright, sunlit exteriors on the island. The island also demonstrates the great contrast that is occasionally achieved with the dark blue seas on top of frame and the light tan beaches below. Shadow delineation is strong and depth within frames is apparent in a shot where Alec is seen at the end of a walkway on the ship.
Also from the liner notes, "The 2,0 surround soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from the 35 mm original Dolby A magnetic tracks. Clicks, thumps, hiss, hum, and crackle were manually removed using Pro Tools HD, AudioCube's integrated workstation, and iZotope RX 4."
The track sounds free of defect from age or wear. The dialogue is always clear and understandable. It blends well with Carmine Coppola's magnificent score and effects and the combined elements reveal rather than hide the width of the dynamic range. During the opening credits, the music includes a flute and harp while the soft sounds of sand being blown away can be heard. Other quiet sounds like a snake slithering and a fire crackling are also evident. The bass is put to very use as the ship's engine rumbles.
The Black also demonstrates the ends of the dynamic range from the loud pinging of his hooves on metal when locked up on the ship to the gentle smacking of its lips and mouth while eating a sugar cube.
The audio offers one of the best experiences in opening up the soundfield for a 2.0 track. As the Black races away, its hooves grow softer to create distance. A similar occurrence happens when trumpets at a horse race appear loud when shown being played and then the volume lowered when showing the crowd. The train to the big race moves across channels and horses can be heard passing across.
I had never seen 'The Black Stallion' before this Criterion release so I don't have any childhood nostalgia influencing my reaction to it, but I wish I had grown up with it and been able to revisit it over the years because I found the film to be such a delight. The Blu-ray looks and sounds marvelous and the extras do a very good providing information about the film's creation and some of its makers.