Secretariat is Walt Disney Pictures answer to Universal’s Seabiscuit in that they are both stories about prize-winning thoroughbreds and their owners/trainers/jockey’s overcoming incredible odds to change the world of horse racing forever. They often look and sound similar despite being set nearly half a century apart. And although their narratives ultimately follow the same trajectory they can be compared and contrasted by the characteristics of the studios the made them. True this is an odd way of looking at a film but bear with me for a moment.
While Seabiscuit ends on an uplifting note the human drama at its core involving “Red” Pollard and Charles Howard their relationship with one another and the triangle of friendship between Pollard Howard and his wife and the horse is paramount in making the rousing conclusion heartfelt. Universal Pictures is a company that has thrived on some deeply dramatic works of film-art and made sure that it produced something more than just another sports movie. It worked and Seabiscuit went on to receive seven Academy Award nominations.
Secretariat though an equally inspiring tale doesn’t hit all the strings that its predecessor does because in true Disney form the tone of the film is sentimental and borders the line between that and schmaltz. Every time director Randall Wallace uses events of the era (like protests of the Vietnam War) or secondary storylines (like the family drama that ensues when Penny Chenery [Diane Lane] decides to split her time between her Denver home and the Southern ranch where her super-stallion resides) to layer the story the film slips back into feel-good mode marked by 70s soul and the generic golden glow that seems to be a DP’s choice in shooting scenes from “a better time.” This takes away from Secretariat’s legitimacy as cinema leaving behind just another sweet product of the Mouse House.
That’s not to say that the cast and crew don’t get a few things right. Though Lane’s Penny at first appears to be a cookie-cutter homemaker overwhelmed by the responsibility of tending to her aging father’s ranch she quickly proves that she’s a tough cookie. I thoroughly enjoyed John Malkovich’s performance as Lucien Laurin the down-on-his-luck trainer who needed to win just as much as Penny as he was the only one to shake things up a bit. The horseracing sequences executed by seasoned cinematographer Dean Semler (who won an Oscar for shooting Dances With Wolves) are standout scenes that are very exciting thanks to some nifty editing.
Secretariat could’ve been good but producers Mark Ciardi and Gordon Gray aimed to make an easily accessible family film that rarely challenges its viewer; because of that it’s just okay. Historians may be interested in some of the special features including a conversation between Wallace and the real Penny Chenery (who has a brief cameo in the film) and a closer look at the real Secretariat and his triumphant 1973 Preakness run while film enthusiasts will rather listen to the filmmaker’s commentary or watch a brief featurette on the choreography of the races. It’s worth renting for a carefree night with the family but there’s not enough bonus content or replay value to warrant a purchase.
The story of the most dominant racehorse of all time does not easily fit into the standard inspirational sports flick mold. Such films typically require its protagonists to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles be they competitive (Hoosiers) personal (The Natural) societal (Ali) or some combination of all three (Remember the Titans). But by all accounts the greatest challenges to Secretariat capturing of the 1973 Triple Crown were not rival horses — indeed Secretariat had no true rival — but a pair of slow starts and an abscess. And abscesses — apologies to dermatologists — simply aren’t all that effective as dramatic devices.
Lacking most of the vital ingredients of the traditional underdog movie formula Disney’s Secretariat is forced to synthesize them. Its screenplay written by Mike Rich and based rather loosely on the book Secretariat: The Making of a Champion by William Nack adopts a conventional save-the-farm framework: When her parents pass away within months of each other Denver housewife Penny Tweedy (Diane Lane) is advised to sell off her family’s Virginia-based Meadow Stables a beautiful but unprofitable horse-breeding enterprise in order to pay the onerous inheritance taxes levied by the state. But Penny her deceased father’s hackneyed horse-inspired counsel fresh in her mind (“You’ve got to run your own race ” etc. etc.) is loath to depart with such a cherished heirloom. So she concocts a scheme just idiotic enough to work betting the farm — literally — that her new horse Big Red in whom she has an almost Messianic faith will win the Kentucky Derby Preakness and Belmont races in succession.
Of course Big Red under the stage name Secretariat goes on to do just that but only after the film subjects us to nearly two hours of manufactured melodrama. Lane grasping all-too conspicuously for awards consideration treats every line as if it were the St. Crispin’s Day speech. Her character Penny exhibits a hair-trigger sensitivity to the sounds of skeptics and naysayers bursting forth with a polite rebuke and a stern sermon for anyone who dares doubt her crusade from the trash-talking owner of a rival horse to her annoyingly pragmatic husband (Dylan Walsh).
Lane isn’t alone in her grandiosity. The entire production reeks of it as director Randall Wallace lines the story with fetid chunks of overwrought Oscar bait like so many droppings in an untended stable even using Old Testament quotations and gospel music to endow Penny’s quest with biblical significance. John Malkovich is kind enough to inject some mirth into the heavy-handed proceedings hamming it up as Secretariat’s trainer Lucien Laurin a French-Canadian curmudgeon with an odd sartorial palette. It’s not enough however to alleviate the discomfort of witnessing the film's quasi-Sambo depiction of Secretariat’s famed groom Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis) which reaches its cringeworthy zenith when Sweat runs out to the track on the eve of the Belmont Stakes and exclaims to no one in particular that “Big Red done eat his breakfast this mornin’!!!” Bagger Vance would be proud. Whether or not Ellis’ portrayal of Sweat’s cadence and mannerisms is accurate (and for all I know it may well be) the character is too thinly drawn to register as anything more than an amiable simple-minded servant.
Animal lovers will be happy to know that the horses in Secretariat come off looking far better than their human counterparts and not just because they’re alloted the best dialogue. In the training and racing sequences Wallace effectively conveys the strength and majesty of the fearsome animals drawing us into the action and creating a strong element of suspense even though the final result is a fait accompli. It's too bad the rest of the film never makes it out of the gate.
Apparently, America's favorite pastime is also Walt Disney Studio's new business model. Not two months after the studio picked up an untitled baseball pitch (no pun intended) with Bradley Cooper attached, it has now acquired a long-in-development sports project titled Million Dollar Arm, says THR.
Based on an Indian reality TV series, the project would focus on two young men from India, one a cricket player, the other a javelin thrower, who are plucked from their rural Hindi villages by a sports agent and join the minor leagues of American baseball. Through American pop-culture they learn how to make it in the sports world and in the United States. Columbia Pictures had been developing Million Dollar Arm for some time, but when the deal between producers Mark Ciardi, Gordon Gray and Joe Roth and parent company Sony began to dissolve, they brought it to the Mouse House - where all three have strong relationships.
Mitch Glazer, who is in post-production on the drama Passion Play, will pen the screenplay for the picture that is aiming for a similar tone to that of Disney's past sports-themed hits Miracle and The Rookie (both produced by Ciardi and Gray). Roth is valued commodity at the studio, having produced the billion dollar Alice In Wonderland and countless other top projects. He's also working on the Wizard of Oz prequel Oz, The Great and Powerful for Disney.
With successful power-players like Roth, Ciardi and Gray involved I should probably have more confidence in this project, but the fish-out-of-water element of this story is the only thing that Million Dollar Arm has going for it. Based on the plot description, it sounds like it's going to be in the vein of Cool Runnings, another enjoyable Disney hit that was set in the arena of bobsled racing. But part of me thinks feels that this is an act of desperation on Disney's part. They have had no luck this year at the box office outside of time-honored properties and family friendly franchises (Alice and Toy Story 3, respectively). Their star player - Jerry Bruckheimer - has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a pair of "four-quadrant tentpoles" that are top priority for new toppers Rich Ross and Sean Bailey that have barely broke even. The studio is in dire need of something fresh and friendly to audiences and I think that they are just running through the usual motions as they try to produce an easy-to-digest hit. Walt Disney Pictures should take a hint from Warner Bros: grow some balls and take a risk some time - as Inception has proved, it can pay off in so many unexpected ways.