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The Black Stallion: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review

The Black Stallion (1979) movie poster The Black Stallion

Theatrical Release: October 17, 1979 / Running Time: 118 Minutes / Rating: G

Director: Stephen Frears / Writers: Melissa Mathison, Jeanne Rosenberg, William D. Wittliff (screenplay); Walter Farley (novel)

Cast: Kelly Reno (Alec Ramsey), Mickey Rooney (Henry Dailey), Teri Garr (Alec's Mother), Clarence Muse (Snoe), Hoyt Axton (Alec's Father), Michael Higgins (Neville), Ed McNamara (Jake), Doghmi Larbi (Arab), Cass-Ole (The Black)

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With just six narrative features and a single Oscar nomination (for Best Documentary, no less) over the course of his more than fifty years as a filmmaker, Carroll Ballard does not strike you as one of the most productive or proficient filmmakers of his time.
But Ballard is a bit like Terrence Malick in that although his output is scarce, his body of work is distinctive, generally strong, and easy to revere. Also like Malick, Ballard's films are artistic, big on nature and have a haunting, lyrical quality to them.

That's as far as I can take the comparison. Ballard is not a recluse unwilling to be photographed or make public appearances. He hasn't been active lately, let alone making divisive films with A-list talent. In fact, Ballard, who turns 78 this fall, may be retired, for all we know. His most recent movie, Duma, came out ten years ago.

Ballard is probably still most esteemed for his first film, the 1979 drama The Black Stallion. The director had done second unit photography on Finian's Rainbow, helmed by his USC classmate Francis Ford Coppola, and on a little 1977 George Lucas movie called Star Wars, where he worked primarily on Tatooine desert scenes. Coppola produced Ballard's feature directing debut, which was adapted from Walter Farley's 1941 novel of the same name by a trio of young, largely inexperienced scribes (including Melissa Mathison, who would next write E.T.) plus an uncredited Lucas/Coppola sound man/editor Walter Murch.

Castaway Alec Ramsey (Kelly Reno) bonds with an Arabian horse in "The Black Stallion."

As you can guess, Stallion tells the story of a dark-colored horse. It also tells the stories of a boy and an old man. The boy is Alec Ramsey (Kelly Reno), who is traveling with his gambling father (Hoyt Axton) on ship off the coast of North Africa in 1946. One night, the ship capsizes. Alec and the wild black Arabian horse that has caught his eye are the only two survivors we know of. They narrowly make it to shore, where they slowly but surely bond while awaiting rescue.

In the movie's decidedly different second half, Alec returns home to his mother (Teri Garr), with his equine friend Black in tow. The horse runs off and settles into the barn of one Henry Dailey (Mickey Rooney, never better), an old retired jockey and trainer. Alec and Henry try to do the improbable, by turning this recently wild stallion into a racehorse and turning young Alec into his jockey.

The Black Stallion is a remarkably sweet and satisfying film. It is understated, quiet, melancholy at times, but also undeniably inspiring and moving. Ballard and company do not talk down to their audience, making what has often and fairly been described as an art film for children. For that matter, they don't even talk, opting for understatement and going dialogue-free for a number of stretches. The film is tailored to attention spans longer than the ones today's children develop. As such, its beauty and power may be lost on them.

Former jockey and trainer Henry Dailey (Mickey Rooney) takes Alec (Kelly Reno) under his wing, turning him into the jockey of Black.

All six of Ballard's films, which include the critical darlings Fly Away Home (1996) and Never Cry Wolf (1983), have earned that art film for children label, turning them into a class among themselves quite different from many other youth-oriented live-action films.
Ballard has claimed he's been typecast, his unique first film establishing him as a director who would gladly eschew W.C. Fields' famous advice "Never work with animals or children." But once you've seen The Black Stallion, it's unlikely you'd want Ballard to make something drastically different from this soulful, heartfelt tale.

For a family film that forgoes dialogue for much of its runtime, The Black Stallion proved surprisingly popular in theaters, where it was released by United Artists in the fall of 1979. The acclaimed film grossed $37.8 million domestically, which inflation adjusts to over $122 million today (around the equivalent of The Fault in Our Stars). The biggest area for which the film was singled out was in the glorious cinematography of Caleb Deschanel, also making his feature debut alongside his colleague in shorts Ballard. The original score by Carmine Coppola (Francis' father) won an award from Los Angeles Film Critics and was nominated for a Golden Globe. At the Oscars, the film picked up nominations for Best Supporting Actor (Rooney) and for Film Editing. Though it lost both of those, the film did earn a Special Achievement Award for Alan Splet's sound editing.

Lacking the flash and fun of more traditional comedy/musical family films, The Black Stallion has been forgotten by some in the 36 years since it debuted. It spawned a sequel in 1983 (The Black Stallion Returns) and a prequel in 2003 (Disney's 50-minute IMAX follow-up). Between those, an internationally-produced TV series starring Rooney ran for three seasons at the beginning of the 1990s. Recently, the film arrived on Blu-ray in the classiest way that a film can: as part of The Criterion Collection. This G-rated film (which would clearly earn a PG today) was assigned spine number 765 in its brand new single-disc Blu-ray and two-disc DVD editions.

The Black Stallion: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

1.85:1 Widescreen
2.0 DTS-HD MA Surround (English)
Subtitles: English
Extras Not Subtitled; Not Closed Captioned
Suggested Retail Price: $39.95
Release Date: July 14, 2015
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Clear Keepcase
Also available on DVD ($29.95 SRP) and on Amazon Instant Video
Still available as MGM Blu-ray ($14.99 SRP; March 18, 2014) and MGM DVD ($9.98 SRP; September 10, 1997)

VIDEO and AUDIO

As one of the most beautifully photographed films of all time, The Black Stallion's first-rate restoration from Criterion is nothing to take lightly. Apart from the sandy opening titles, the 1.85:1 transfer looks exquisite, boasting great detail, consistency, sharpness, and clarity. That Oscar-winning surround soundtrack is presented in 2.0 DTS-HD master audio. It too makes a winning impression, with everything from Coppola's soothing, versatile score to the sounds of Black's whinnies.

Despite the exclamation mark, "Pigs!" don't make for the most interesting subject in Carroll Ballard's 1965 short. A house cat left alone explores Los Angeles in Carroll Ballard's 1969 short "The Perils of Priscilla."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The Blu-ray's all-HD bonus features begin with five short films Carroll Ballard directed prior to The Black Stallion. Varying in length, aspect ratio, and genre, these shorts are each accompanied by newly-recorded introductions,
in which Ballard reflects on them (acknowledging they all were born out of financial need) with Scott Foundas, the chief film critic of Variety soon to depart journalism for an executive position at Amazon Studios, who turns his unnecessary reaction shots into must-see bizarreness with his odd facial expressions.

First up, from 1965, is Pigs! (11:24), a lifeless unnarrated documentary about the life of farm pigs that is joined by a 1:01 intro.

The Perils of Priscilla (1969) (17:20) is a short created for the Humane Society. This creative piece provide a cat's eye view of a family pet who is left outside and then wanders around Los Angeles from the desolate LA River to the bustling sidewalks. Its intro runs 1 minute and 54 seconds.

Ten years before "The Black Stallion", Carroll Ballard documented the Rodeo in this 1969 short. The crystallization process is captured on film in Carroll Ballard's 1974 short "Crystallization."

Rodeo (1969) (19:33) provides an interesting, artful portrait of champion Larry Mahan and others at the 1968 National Rodeo Finals in Oklahoma City. In the intro (4:12), Ballard explains wanting to experiment with slowing time, as he does, and a sly cheat to get the best footage.

From 1971, Seems Like Only Yesterday (47:11) is the longest of the shorts. This black and white documentary finds Los Angeles centenarians -- including Ballard's grandfather -- reflecting on how they lived in the city in the 1880s and how the world around them is changing. The nostalgic, pessimistic remarks are complemented by a variety of contemporary TV programming (from ads to clips of space launches) plus melodies like "Scarborough Fair." Its intro runs 2 minutes and 20 seconds.

The fifth and final short, 1974's Crystallization (11:18), provides a microscopic view of crystals forming. Trippily scored, this psychedelic educational short is described as some kind of light show by Ballard in his intro (1:23).

Director Carroll Ballard discusses his feature debut at length with Variety's Scott Foundas. Zooey and Emily's father Caleb Deschanel reflects on his first feature cinematography credit in a new Criterion interview.

If those intros left you wanting more Ballard/Foundas interaction, you're in luck. "Carroll Ballard and Scott Foundas" (47:14), similarly taped earlier this year at Ballard's house, lets the two speak at length about The Black Stallion. They touch on cast and crew, the challenges of filming (like working with a poisonous snake), and the film's reception (including a screening where execs attending expected to see Coppola's Apocalypse Now instead). While the retrospective would benefit from some archival behind-the-scenes footage, it has great value as is.

"Caleb Deschanel on The Black Stallion" (21:26) gets the director of photography's reflections on this, his first feature. Besides touching upon the shorts he and Ballard had collaborated, 5-time Oscar nominee Deschanel, the father of actresses Zoey and Emily, focuses on Stallion, getting into specifics a bit.

Mickey Rooney takes a probably staged snooze in one of Mary Ellen Mark's production stills. Criterion's static Blu-ray menu is briefly joined by harp score from the film.

Still photographer Mary Ellen Mark speaks off-camera over her mostly black and white production photographs (7:19).

Last but not least,
we get The Black Stallion's original theatrical trailer (1:59), a tasteful preview.

The menu attaches some lovely harp score to a still. As always, Criterion authors the disc to resume playback and to let you set bookmarks.

Par for the line, the clear keepcase holds a companion booklet. It unfolds to display an approximately 14" x 20" poster of Alec and Black on the beach. The other side displays not only film and disc credits, transfer information, and acknowledgments, but also "Nirvana on Horseback", a thoughtful and informative new essay from author and online film critic Michael Sragow.

Stranded on a beach off the coast of Africa, Alec Ramsey (Kelly Reno) and Black the stallion bond in "The Black Stallion."

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The Black Stallion made a big first impression on me around a dozen years ago and continues to enchant as an unorthodox, picturesque, and slightly slow piece of child-friendly art cinema. Losing its place in the public's hearts, this film still gets the respect it deserves in this loving Criterion Blu-ray, which is bolstered by the inclusion of five of Ballard's shorts, making this a valuable collection of the director's earliest work.

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Related Reviews:
Directed by Carroll Ballard: Never Cry Wolf | New to Blu-ray: My Beautiful Laundrette The Water Diviner
Screenplays by Jeanne Rosenberg: The Young Black Stallion White Fang The Journey of Natty Gann
Secretariat Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron My Lucky Elephant Cheetah Dolphin Tale
War Horse Francis Ford Coppola: 5-Film Collection Hugo How to Train Your Dragon The Water Horse Titanic
Mickey Rooney: Pete's Dragon The Fox and the Hound Night at the Museum
1970s on Blu-ray: Breaking Away Badlands Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory Rocky

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Reviewed August 1, 2015.



Text copyright 2015 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1979 United Artists, Omni Zoetrope Studios, and 2015 The Criterion Collection, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.