“He paws fiercely, rejoicing in his strength and charges into the fray. He laughs at fear, afraid of nothing. He does not shy away from the sword. The quiver rattles against his side, along with the flashing spear and lance. In frenzied excitement, he eats up the ground. He cannot stand still when the trumpet sounds.”
Disney has a grand tradition of putting out a certain kind of sports film. You know the type well. There is a champion that must overcome incredible odds and usually their own flaws to rise to the top of their game. Secretariat fits that mold, but only to a point. Usually the movie centers on the athletes themselves, and it’s something from within that must change or conquer. With this film, the champion is a horse, and while that often doesn’t stop the folks at Disney from allowing us to hear from their perspective, this is based on a true story and remains firmly planted into a reality, of sorts. But, we can’t hear from Secretariat himself. Instead this is really the story of his owner Penny Chenery, and it’s not a very flattering story at all. I’m afraid that I didn’t find myself cheering for the hero this time, and therein lies the fatal flaw of Disney’s latest rise-of-a-champion story.
Penny (Lane) is a pretty normal housewife. Her husband Jack (Walsh) is a lawyer, and they have two kids. When her mother dies, Penny returns to the family horse farm to find that things are not going so well. Her father (Glenn) is suffering from mental lapses, and there is betrayal within to try to rip him off for the value of the family assets. She decides to step in and begin to run the farm for her father and eventually taking it over after he dies. She manages to outwit the all boys-club family rivals and ends up with a promising horse she calls Big Red. It doesn’t take her very long at all to discover that this horse is special and has a very uncommon skill at both speed and endurance. The horse starts to win races, and expectations start to build that this could be the first Triple Crown winner in over 20 years. Of course, there are the setbacks and the moments when it looks dark. But we already know the story and aren’t too surprised at all when the horse wins the coveted titles.
Usually these movies give you someone to root for, and you could root for the horse. But, as I’ve already said, this is really Penny’s story, and she is not a sympathetic character at all. The movie attempts to show her bond with and pride in the horse. She’s depicted as the horse’s inspiration to excel. It’s her family that ends up bearing the cost of her obsession. The film makes no point to hide the fact that she practically abandons her husband and kids to chase this dream. I’m afraid I don’t find anything about this woman admirable. She ends up using her maiden name, so while the film doesn’t completely tell us, it’s pretty clear she never went back to her family after the horse’s extraordinary run to fame. Diane Lane does the best she can with the part, but I’m afraid it’s rather an uphill battle. The dialog she’s given is never sincere. It’s as if the writers had a handy copy of inspirational quotes by their desks as they wrote the script. She speaks in constant cliché and over-the-top bravado. And don’t get me started on that horrible wig.
The saving grace of the film is another eccentric performance by John Malkovich as the horse’s pariah trainer Lucien Laurin. I’m quite sure the real guy wasn’t near this flamboyant, but he’s a completely compelling character who provides the closest thing to entertainment for the movie. Scott Glenn is completely underused as Penny’s failing father. I know that the reality of the chronology here doesn’t allow for him to do a ton more than he’s asked to do here. I hoped that some heartwarming moments between Penny and her father might have allowed us to be at least a touch sympathetic to her character. Plus that kind of scene would have provided Glenn with something more to sink his thespian chops into. Sadly, the movie doesn’t provide us with any such motivation. Again, we might root for the horse, but I just couldn’t bring myself to wish success on Penny. The supporting players of James Cromwell and Fred Dalton Thompson offer glimmers of hope that fade as quickly as a shooting star on a cloudy night. I’d love to recommend this one for you and the family. Sadly, I cannot.
Secretariat is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 25-30 mbps. The film looks natural enough. A lot of effort went into reproducing the races, and they look quite authentic. The high-definition image, however, does do something the film itself couldn’t seem to do. It makes the horse the star. There were five different horses used, and the image is so sharp you’ll notice the slight variations. The texture of the horse hair and the dirt flying from the track all stand out quite strongly on this image presentation. Black levels are fine, but little happens in darkness. Colors pop on the jockey silks.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 really pops on the horse races. You can feel the thunder of the hooves and the slightest breaths and snorts from the animals themselves. The sound design has incredible balance. The score is perfectly placed as are ambient sounds and dialog. You’ll find excellent use of the entire sound field. Subs might not be powerful, but they do contribute here without overpowering at any time.
There is an Audio Commentary with director Randall Wallace. He acts like he’s having a secret meeting with us and appears to actually be whispering. This overt attempt at mood makes his information suspect in my mind. He pats himself on the back entirely too much. Me thinks thou doth protest too much.
Heart Of A Champion: (14:56) HD The real horse has a tombstone bigger than most humans. We pay a visit to the grave and talk with the real Penny. Cast and crew join in to this Big Red love fest.
Choreographing The Races: (6:27) HD This is indeed where the film excelled. Take a look at film footage and footage from the actual races.
A Conversation With The Real Penny Chenery: (21:12) HD Wallace sits down on a couch with the real Penny. Unfortunately my enjoyment was tainted by not liking her very much.
Deleted Scenes: There are 7 with a play all option.
Music Video: (4:02) “It’s Who We Are”.
At one point in the movie Penny jokes that the horse her competitor ended up with was named Missed Opportunity. I’m not sure what kind of a horse name that might really have been, but it does indeed describe this movie as perfectly as anything I can tell you here. There’s not a lot of drama to be found here. We all know how it ends. It works on films like Apollo 13 because the journey is so compelling. Here there is no compelling journey. Recently Seabiscuit became a film with Spider-Man’s Tobey Maguire. That film offered tension and high drama. None of that exists here. The script lets the cat out of the bag too early. I’m sure there wasn’t mention of Triple Crown championships so early in the horse’s development. The movie makes it look like anything less is complete failure. Penny is intended as the real champion, but I ask you, “Do you give the horse its strength or clothe his neck with a flowing mane?”