Horse racing (and horses in general) has never really interested me. Really, when a horse and Disney come together, we can be sure we’re in for a feel good, slightly clichéd film with lots of “life lessons” along the way. Now this may sound cynical (which I suppose it is), but you can’t say that I’m wrong. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong about the use of clichés and riddling a film with life lessons, but it can be sticky. There have also been a lot, and I mean a lot! of horse racing movies involving the unbelievable odds against the horse and the unshaken perseverance of the owner. These films must almost always carry one of the following taglines: “Based on the impossible true story” . . . “Based on the unbelievable true story” . . . “Based on the ridiculously improbably, unlikely, and absurd true story”. This has just become a fact of life. There exists no way around this. Every horse movie has had a tagline of this nature and every horse movie yet to come will have a tagline like the above. Now for some reason, these horse movies usually turn out as enjoyable, fun (if not new) experiences. Can Secretariat bring anything new whatsoever to the dusty, yet still well-varnished table of horse racing movies? No. Does Secretariat fall into unfortunate horse racing clichés such as slow motion, intrusive music, anthropomorphic animals, and dumb “wise sayings” for the main character? Yes. It does all of these things. However, like its tired old predecessors, Secretariat succeeds for the most part in being a shallow yet enjoyable and cute movie.
We all know the story. After Penny Tweedy’s father dies, she takes over his farm and raises a horse named Big Red, who goes on to become “the greatest racing horse that ever lived”, so we don’t need to get into that. Diane Lane plays the aforementioned Mrs. Tweedy, and her performance is acceptable if not a little contrived. John Malkovich plays Lucien Laurin, the horse’s trainer. Laurin wears bright and tactless colours along with unfashionable hats. His whole demeanor celebrates the eccentric. Malkovich was probably the only actor who could have done this role with such zaniness and subtlety. The first shots of Malkovich feature him attempting to hit golf balls on the driving range. His swing teeters on the edge of hopelessness and we can tell immediately that he has no business in “retirement”. This man should be out training horses. Penny comes to him offering a job, and Laurin has no business saying “No”, but of course he does. After much deliberation on his part, he finally agrees to take the job and the so the story begins. Malkovich is as wonderful as ever, and the film wouldn’t be nearly as entertaining without him. John Malkovich is a treasured performer.
Now this is a perfectly harmless film that is meant for escapism purposes only. The film never gets to deep, and doesn’t explore in depth the dynamics of horse racing or the psyche of our main character, Mrs. Tweedy, and what motivates her. The film strives to be nothing but a feel good movie and it accomplishes just that. While we’re watching it, we feel good for the most part. This movie makes no boasts about being deep or intellectual or thought provoking. Secretariat lives to entertain its audience and for the most part it does. I was entertained. People in the theatre around me seemed entertained. Truth be told, it is not a great movie, nor can we expect it to be. Sometimes pure feel good movies do become great movies, but for the most part they ignite the most basic of human emotions such as love, hate, and sorrow. All of these thrive in Secretariat as they should. It tells a sweet and gentle, typically Disney story that just keeps us lightly amused and entertained throughout its two hours and three minutes. We’re never completely engaged, but the film holds our interest enough to make us satisfied. Of course there’s no suspense, not just because we know what happens, but because in this sort of Disney feel good movie, certain things must happen. The must first be born, then it gets trained, then it runs its first race in which it miraculously succeeds, then the owners nearly lose the horse to greedy and money hungry people, then the horse must lose a race and / or get sick, then the horse must come back for one final astounding victory. This happens in every horse movie I’ve ever seen and in my opinion, I think this generic formula works pretty well. So, is the movie good? Yes. Is it original? Big fat NO!
My main problems with the movie are more technical. I disliked the musical score. I just wish that for once Hollywood would cut out the dramatic, intrusive, invasive music at climax points and stop telling us how to feel! We shouldn’t have to be told how to feel by big booming and thunderous musical notes. If a movie can’t do this without such a pretentious score then it is not succeeding. The incidental musical score was also a big problem for me in this years Inception, a film I liked very much except for this small point. I also can’t stand slow motion. Every film since Chariots of Fire has insisted on slowing down the final moments of a race to show the winner run like molasses threw the finish line. This has become a ridiculously overused cliché in film making and it must be stopped NOW! The next slow runner I see on screen will cause convulsion to seize my body. I am so sick and tired of slow motion in racing movies. Haven’t we had enough? End rant . . . Other flaws in the film include the anthropomorphism of the horse. Look, the horse doesn’t know what’s really going on, and horses don’t pose, and their owner can’t peer deep into their “souls” by looking quietly into their eyes. This is another horse movie cliché that unfortunately Secretariat revels in. I assure all of you animists out there that no horse has ever had a reasonable thought, and it certainly has no soul. That’s just a fact of life. Why Hollywood (and Disney in particular) insists on making these animals as human as possible baffles me. I have not ever, do not now, and will not ever understand this folly of animal movies. Maybe it’s to get the audience to cry!
Anyway, despite its many flaws, Secretariat wants to entertain us and succeeds most of the time. A few clichés could have been avoided along with some technical errors, and perhaps the film takes a little too long to finish, but for the most part I liked the movie. I think most people will like the movie unless they’re really, really curmudgeons. And a note to Randall Wallace: you are a talented man who makes good, wholesome, well-meaning, spiritual movies. Yes, I include Braveheart here as well.
Walt Disney Pictures Presents
Cast: Diane Lane, John Malkovich, Dylan Walsh, Margo Martindale, Nelsan Ellis, Otto Thorwarth, Fred Thomson, James Cromwell, Scott Glenn. Directed by Randall Wallace
Rated PG for mild language. Release Date: 08 October 2010