Dir: Simon Wincer. US. 2003. 50mins.
A prequel to 1979 family classic The Black Stallion, The Young Black Stallion, Disney's first live-action dramatic movie made specifically for giant screen exhibition, is, predictably, strong on visuals and weak on story. A Christmas Day opening in the US on 51 IMAX screens yielded a first-weekend per-screen average of $12,352, suggesting a decent long term take though one well short of the biggest IMAX hits. International results will depend on the availability of giant screen cinemas in any given territory, but with the right timing - most moviegoers are likely to want to see the film on school holiday outings to large-screen-equipped theme parks or entertainment centres - The Young Black Stallion could eventually turn out to be a profitable experiment for Disney.
The film's strengths and weaknesses are largely dictated by the possibilities and limitations of the large-screen format. With a running time of just 50 mins (fairly standard for the format), for example, the film has little chance to build up dramatic momentum. The story, set in 1945 North Africa and based on the last novel from Black Stallion creator Walter Farley, has a similar shape to that of the original film, only this time the fiery wild stallion is befriended by Neera (Tamimi), a young girl lost in the desert. Neera brings the stallion back to her family casbah and enters him in a local race in an effort to restore the fortunes of her kindly grandfather (Romanus, from The Sopranos).
The script by Jeanne Rosenberg (who, together with producer Fred Roos, also worked on the original movie) attempts to give the film some intimate moments, but the story always feels skimpy and dramatic tension only really builds during the climactic horse race.
Tamimi, a US-born schoolgirl of Mexican/Palestinian heritage, is appealing and fairly capable in her first acting role. Other performers include famous Moroccan jockey Al Ameri as the villain of the story.
The strengths of the piece are its use of the large-screen format to deliver arresting and astoundingly detailed images of some beautiful animals and striking locations. Australian director Simon Wincer has worked successfully with animals before (on Free Willy and Phar Lap) and the animal shots here have a sheen and sensuality that will win over even non-horse lovers. Wincer does a particularly impressive job staging the race finale, getting a surprising amount of movement out of his bulky large-format cameras.
Director of photography Reed Smoot (an award-winning large-format veteran with credits including Journey Of Man, Mysteries Of Egypt and Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure) delivers some gorgeous desert vistas and dizzying helicopter shots. The film was shot in Namibia and South Africa and although locations occasionally clash the countries make a mostly credible stand in for North Africa itself.
One minor annoyance resulting from the use of the large-screen format is the film's looped dialogue (IMAX cameras are too noisy to allow dialogue to be recorded on set). The less than perfect synching - and the American accents of the younger actors - sometimes makes the film feel like a culturally incongruous Disney cartoon.
Prod cos: Walt Disney Pictures
US dist: Buena Vista Pictures
Exec prods: Jeanne Rosenberg, Kathleen Kennedy
Prods: Fred Roos, Frank Marshall
Scr: Jeanne Rosenberg, based on the novel by Walter Farley and Steven Farley
Cinematography: Reed Smoot
Prod des: Paul Peters
Eds: Bud Smith, Terry Blythe
Costume des: Jo Katsaras
Music: William Ross
Main cast: Richard Romanus, Biana G Tamimi, Patrick Elyas, Gerard Rudolf, Ali Al Ameri