"Black stallion and that little boy's smile!" Hey, that's "The African American Horse" to you, whitey! Man, I'm all for actual correctness over political correctness, so it hurt just joking about that, especially considering that the horse is Arabian. Shoot, I think that the film itself is technically Italian-American, just because Francis Ford Coppola is associated with it. Yup, nothing says good, wholesome family entertainment which features a horse like "Francis Ford Coppola Presents". You know a bunch of parents back in 1979 saw that on the poster, just under the silhouette of only the titular horse's head, then gulped, but don't worry, kids, because this film isn't quite that... interesting. I mean, the film is adequately engaging, but I'd be a little more willing to get invested if this film was more willing to tell me about what I'm getting invested in.
Developmental shortcomings prove to be a much bigger issue in this film than I was expecting, and the film hardly wastes any time before unveiling this surprise, as immediate background development is more-or-less totally absent, leaving the drama to say nothing about leads who aren't that much more extensively characterized in a body that is certainly intimate with its characters, but more in a meditative fashion, rather than expository. Although the young lead and his peers find themselves in unique situations, no one is truly distinguished, while anything from the lead's grief over the tragedy of being marooned, to the lead's coming to embrace the changes in his character and lifestyle upon returning to civilization are shockingly not portrayed, and as smart as a lot of the writing is, and as engaging as the performances are, that notable lack of humanity defuses so much momentum in this drama as one of the final product's greatest shortcomings. The undercooking at least leaves the build-up to each segment to be thinned down, to where the focal shifts jar and convolute the progression of a narrative which says so little, through all of its uneven layering and, for that matter, excessiveness. Although the film saves a whole lot of time by expending exposition and what have, it still clocks in at just shy of two hours, and although that runtime is more fitting than I feared when I observed how much storytelling thins out its layers, there is still plenty of expendable material to further retard a sense of momentum in an underdeveloped and aimless narrative. Terribly lazy with its exposition and also rather limp with its pacing, this film does a lot to distance, but, hey, if all else fails, there are always good old-fashioned directorial dry spells, courtesy of Carroll Ballard, whose surprisingly artistic, maybe even storytelling is realized enough to be effective more often than not, but nonetheless too meditative on nothingness to carry much spark, resulting in some serious dull spells. There is so much potential to this film, yet it seems as though this film takes every opportunity to betray it, carrying many of the strengths of a more rewarding interpretation of intriguing subject matter, but ultimately falling too deeply into flatness to depth, unevenness to structure, and limpness to pacing and atmosphere to transcend underwhelmingness. These are the makings of a mediocre misfire, but at no point is this film ever that, being an absolute mess, make no mistake, but still compelling enough to you by, especially aesthetically.
In 1979, just before he saw the birth of his even more popular daughter, Caleb Deschanel really unveiled another pretty pair of eyes: his cinematographic eyes (That was a terribly cheesy way of putting that, but shut up and listen to the fun fact), for this was his first of many, many major projects as a director of photography, and boy, was it quite the introduction, showcasing Deschanel's trademark subtly dreamy lighting in the context of many a stunning visual, resulting in some haunting lyrical imagery. Perhaps the visual style isn't especially outstanding, but the film is pretty heavily reliant on it, and considering that we're working with a photographer as talented as Caleb Deschanel here, there is still a lot of beauty here which seems to do a better job of immersing you than the storytelling. If substance carries immersion value, then it is anchored by performances that bring more depth to the character than the storytelling, which is almost embarrassingly undercooked, and therefore lacking in acting material to present to a cast which still does what it can with what it's given, with Mickey Rooney (Man, that kid got old, by 1979, alone) being charming as a kindly horse expert who bonds with a boy whose passion is relatable, while young lead Kelly Reno adequately convinces as a boy who comes of age through harsh struggles, and returns home to face trial which will test his independence and care for a creature which saved his life. Shoot, even Cass Ole puts on a convincing performance (Jeez, I wonder how; look that up and you'll get it), so the acting certainly has its humanity, no matter how hard the storytellers seem to try to limit the depth of this promise story. A survival drama, a boy-beast bonding portrait, a racing film, and altogether an offbeat coming-of-age piece, this story concept is done a deal is injustice by bare-bones storytelling, but there is enough intelligence to Melissa Mathison's, Jeanne Rosenberg's and William D. Wittliff's script to not completely obscure potential, done some justice by decent, if questionable direction. Well, I must give this film a little credit for being a family affair which is unafraid to take on some edgy themes in a very lyrical, almost abstractionist manner, although that might simply be because I have to give credit to some inspiration to Carroll Ballard's direction, which exacerbates the distancing sense of vacancy to storytelling with a certain atmospheric dryness, but utilizes anything from the aforementioned beautiful visuals to plays on a dynamic score by Carmine Coppola which explores both tastefulness and near-wild tension in order to draw you into the tone of this quiet drama. The film's story is worthy, but its vision is questionable, expending true dramatic depth for the sake of a certain meditativeness that hardly has a place in any kind of filmmaking, especially family filmmaking, so the final product runs a great risk of misfire which it ultimately avoids on the back of reasonably realized style and storytelling, despite of all of the lack of realization.
Overall, exposition is absent, as is much of a sense of humanity, in addition to momentum which takes yet more blows to the plotting unevenness and dragging, and dull directorial dry spells, which secure the final product as quite decidedly underwhelming, yet promising subject matter is still done enough justice by decent performances and directorial highlights, and a haunting visual style, to secure Carroll Ballard's "The Black Stallion" as an aesthetically solid and dramatically serviceable, if rather lacking coming-of-age opus.
2.5/5 - Fair