The Black Stallion is a 1979 film executive produced by Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather). The film was the feature debut for director Carroll Ballard (Fly Away Home, Duma), who was hand-picked for the project from Coppola (who was a UCLA classmate). The film version is adapted from the novel by Walter Farley.
The story of The Black Stallion focuses on a young boy named Alec Ramsey (Kelly Reno). The boy is awed and amazed by an Arabian black stallion horse which is on a boat with him and his father (Hoyt Axton). The boat is struck by lightning during a massive storm while out at sea. It sinks in the ocean and Alec's father doesn't survive the perilous storm.
Alec and the horse (which he names "The Black") survive and become stranded on an island together. They form a close friendship and the horse helps to save the boy while they try and survive. They are later rescued from the island and return home to England. Alec is able to be with his mother (Teri Garr) once again. Back home, Alec meets a famous horse trainer named Henry Dailey (performed by Mickey Rooney, who was nominated for an Oscar for the part). Dailey helps Alec learn how to become a jockey and he helps him on his journey entering a famous horse racing competition with several of the fastest horses around.
The film was edited by Robert Dalva (Jumanji, Jurassic Park III), who received an Academy Award nomination for his editorial work. The film was well edited with a sensitive rhythm which feels slow-paced but delicately realized. It's uncommon for this type of family film. Nonetheless, it works remarkably well with this production.
The music was composed by Carmine Coppola (Apocalypse Now). The score for the film is beautiful and hypnotic. It's a lush score with a wonderful sensibility that perfectly synchs alongside Ballard's style of filmmaking. The music and photography are terrific together.
The cinematography was done by Caleb Deschanel (Fly Away Home, Jack Reacher, The Passion of the Christ). This is a remarkably beautiful looking film with great photography. There are so many stunning moments throughout the film with beautiful sunsets, the blue ocean, and other wonderful scenic elements. The imagery is so well photographed by Deschanel. The film is a fantastic moving painting.
The screenplay was written by Melissa Mathison (E.T., Kundun), Jeanne Rosenberg (White Fang, The Young Black Stallion), and William D. Wittliff (Legends of the Fall). The story focused on in the film is one that is simplistic but beautifully realized. The storyline is an unusually dark one for a family film in some respects but it is certainly well told and it is something that works on an emotional level.
Directed by Carroll Ballard (Fly Away Home, Duma), The Black Stallion has a romantic sensibility which is largely because of the directorial style of Ballard. There is a special foundation to Ballard's stylistic approach that reflects his sensitivity as a director. This uncommon and important attribute makes The Black Stallion all the more powerful to experience. The filmmaking is pure art: more poetic and reflective than commercial. It mesmerizes and creates a real sense of cinematic magic.
The Black Stallion arrives on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection with a transfer sourced from a new 4K digital restoration of the film supervised by the film's director of photography Caleb Deschanel. The effort to restore the film was clearly immense: this is a lush presentation that showcases the breathtaking beauty of the cinematography. The film looks remarkably clean (without any issues with print damage, dirt, or other imperfections) and has a layer of fine film grain. The colors are magnificent to behold. This visually stunning work of art has received a quality presentation with its 1080p MPEG-4 AVC High Definition transfer encoded at 24mbps.
The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio stereo presentation retains the original soundtrack design and is encoded at 24 bit depth. This is a strong lossless audio mix. The audio clarity is superb and has excellent dialogue reproduction. The score music by Carmine Coppola sounds lovely. While it might be a simple stereo sound design, the use of music and sound effects are highly effective.
There are a number of supplemental features included with this release. The first bonus is a leaflet featuring an essay on The Black Stallion written by film critic Michael Sragow.
On disc extras include five short films directed by Carroll Ballard, the director of The Black Stallion, all of which include introductions by the filmmaker. The included short films are:
Pigs! (1965, 11 min.) is a documentary focused on the lives of pigs on a farm.
The Perils of Priscilla (1969, 17 min.) is a short film made for the Humane Society which focuses on the perils of a house cat who becomes lost in the streets of Los Angeles.
Rodeo (1969, 20 min.) is a documentary which follows a champion bull rider named Larry Mahan as he competes in the 1968 National Rodeo Finals competition in Oklahoma state.
Seems Like Only Yesterday (1971, 47 min.) is a documentary in which 12 different elderly centenarians were interviewed about their views on the changing way of life in L.A.
Crystallization (1974, 11 min.) is an educational film filmed using a microscope. This short is about the formation of patterns from crystals.
A conversation between filmmaker Ballard and film critic Scott Foundas (47:14), a interview with Black Stallion cinematographer Deschanel (21:26), and a piece with Mary Ellen Mark discussing the still photographs she took during the filming of Black Stallion (7:19).
Lastly, the original theatrical trailer is included.
The Black Stallion is a beautifully made film with stunning cinematography, remarkable music, and a wonderful directorial style from first-time feature filmmaker Carroll Ballard, who brings forth a great performance from newcomer Kelly Reno and who clearly understands how to do excellent work with animals. This moving and visually superb film is one for all fans of great cinema.
Criterion's release includes a plethora of quality supplements (including a range of short films which showcase the precision and style of director Ballard). The new 4K restoration is also a tremendous effort and the film looks absolutely stunning in its presentation.
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