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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Secretariat Wins the Triple Crown for Mediocre Disney Sports Films

 Secretariat = 2 ½ out of 5
[Secretariat has just been born]
Lucien Laurin:  Have you ever seen anything like that.
Eddie Sweat:  No, no I haven't
Penny Chenery:  What?
Eddie Sweat:  A colt stand up that fast.
The best way I can describe this film is "very Disney."  It follows all the rules of the inspiring, Disney-produced, sports film, based on a true story.  You have a few underdogs, characters with determination, the wild card mentor character, the skeptical stand by characters, the arrogant former champions, and even a "magical negro character."  All of these factors add up to making a film deemed “crowd pleasing” by general audiences.  There is nothing inherently wrong with this film (despite the many character changes for it); it is just very shallow and by-the-numbers.

Assuming you know nothing of the story of Secretariat and then do nothing to find out more about Secretariat and the people involved afterward, the story in this film mainly centers on Penny Chenery, played by Diane Lane.  She starts the film as a homemaker in Denver; mother of four and married to Dylan Walsh's character, Jack Tweedy.  Penny soon learns that her mother has just passed away; causing her to go back to the Virginia stables, which she grew up on.  There, Penny finds that the stables are losing money.  With an ailing father, played by Scott Glenn, there is really no one around to keep things afloat.  Against the wishes of her husband and her brother Hollis, played by Dylan Baker, Penny decides to stay at her old home and look into raising a newly born racing horse.  If she is right, then this newborn colt could become quite the prize-winning contender.

Of course, Penny knows very little about horse racing, so she enlists the help of the zany John Malkovich, playing John Malkovich as a wildly dressed but veteran horse trainer, Lucien Laurin.  Also helping the cause are the various people working at the house.  This includes Margo Martindale as Miss Ham, who gave Secretariat his name, and True Blood's Nelsan Ellis (Lafayette) as Eddie Sweat, the aforementioned "magical negro character," who is claimed to be able to talk to horses and sleeps with Secretariat in the stables (the actual helpful things that these characters do are pretty much glossed over).  With these set of folks and the notion of literally having the farm on the line, it is of course history in the making if Secretariat can pull off some big wins.

For a movie titled Secretariat, the horse really does not play much a role in this film.  Sure, focus on a horse would not be very interesting, but the stakes in this film and the characters involved never become very interesting.  Secretariat really only becomes involved in the later stages of the film, with plenty of repetitive horse racing scenes and strange camera shots from his point of view.  The rest of the film is devoted to the drama surrounding having enough money to save Penny's farm.  The film sidesteps other, more interesting plot threads, like what it means to be a woman running an operation like this in the 1970s or the various issues involving her family, especially her rebellious daughter.  There is not even enough done in this film to set up why Penny needs to desperately save this farm, beyond a thirty second flashback to her and her father holding hands and looking at horse when she was young.  Expanding any of these elements could have pushed it beyond its very conventional story structure.

It is not as if this is asking a lot.  Other Disney films like Remember the Titans, Miracle, and even my favorite - Cool Runnings (yes, Cool Runnings!) do a better job at being effective sports dramas that both follow the standard mold, but add elements that make the stories more compelling, even if you know the eventual outcome.  It is especially irritating that the films I have mentioned and this one will garner the same kind of audience approval, i.e. clapping, because they are made in such a way to manipulate that sort of reaction.

The film was directed by Randall Wallace (writer of Braveheart and director of We Were Soldiers), who certainly tries to make this film seem more important than it is, giving all the principles their moment to shine and pushing for slow motion whenever deemed necessary.  Moreover, Mike Rich, who has been involved in several Disney sports films and was behind everyone’s favorite Cuba Gooding Jr. film...Radio, wrote the film.  Rich may do the film its worse disservice by beginning the film with a Bible passage.

Still, this is not a terrible film.  It has the budget at least to look good.  The period art and costume design is handled well enough.  The horse races are easy enough to follow, despite the repetitive nature and the shots from Secretariat's perspective that I mentioned.  Lane's performance is good, even if she does not have that much of a character to expand on in this story.  I have also already mentioned Malkovich, who is clearly around to garner a mix of relief and the feel of a veteran in play, but manages both aspects well, with less of the Malkovich intensity that many are used to.  In fact, a number of good character actors pop up here, including James Cromwell, among the others I have already named.


It is hard to argue against a film like this, because I know that plenty of people will come out of this film with a warm feeling inside if that is what they were looking for.  Nevertheless, I still cannot help but think that a more interesting story was here and was not adequately portrayed.

Mediocre entertainment.
Penny Chenery:  In frenzied excitement, he eats up the ground.  He paws fiercely, rejoicing in his strength, and charges into the fray, in fear of nothing, when the trumpet sounds.

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