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Movie Review: Seabiscuit

Lobo Note: This year's annual Lobo Oscar contest was won by Nicole Greevy (a young gal who possesses much horsesense). Immediately after informing her that she was the sole winner she announced her intention of reviewing Seabiscuit. She also knew way back in March the release date of the film. So accordingly, we have been obsessed with 'all things Seabiscuit' for the last three months. That branched out into 'all things Funnycide,' anything to do with author Laura Hillenbrand, the cast, equine information and so on. We even discussed which theater to see it in (it had to be stadium seating). And so - without anymore chit chat from me - let's read it from the horse's mouth.

Story: After Seabiscuit's victory in the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap, the legendary jockey George Woolf, who'd ridden the losing Heelfly, said of the race, There was just too much Seabiscuit. Just the greatest horse I ever saw.

Pretty high praise for a crooked-legged horse who lost the first seventeen races of his career. But trainer Tom Smith and future owner Charles Howard saw something in the little horse. With jockey Red Pollard, they turned Seabiscuit into a record-setting stakes winner-and into a hero for the average Americans struggling through the Great Depression.

Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit: An American Legend recounted, brilliantly, the true story of this racehorse and the times that made him a folk hero.

Director/screenwriter Gary Ross attempts to do the same in the movie Seabiscuit, and while he clearly has reverence for the material, he doesn't quite pull it off. Ross simply tries to put in too much for one film. Seabiscuit himself doesn't even show up for the first 50 minutes-that time is devoted to the histories of Howard, Smith and Pollard and to the coming of the Great Depression, in sections narrated by David McCullough. The film starts to drag from so much backstory.

After Seabiscuit appears, the film picks up. The horse races, in particular, are very exciting-you almost feel like you're in the race with them. And Ross is very good at wading through Seabiscuit's long career (he ran 89 times, winning 33) and showcasing the biggest nail-biters. But the film feels truncated-many little story lines are introduced and then dropped. While the characters are all likable, they aren't very complex. And Ross tries just a little too hard to touch our hearts, with the result that parts of the film feel manipulative. Most of all, the stakes just don't seem high enough for any of the characters. A simpler storyline, I think, would have given Ross the chance to explore the dark parts of the story more deeply, rather than making them seem minor inconveniences, easily overcome on the way to the next big moment.

But when the horse is on screen, the story comes to life and you can understand why these three men, and a country, believed so much in him. The movies not a failure, but I think it could have used a little less sap and just a bit more Seabiscuit.

Acting: The acting was fine, if not outstanding. Jeff Bridges is a genial owner with a tragic past, and Tobey Maguire is a fiery Red Pollard (though without the wiseass humor that made the real Pollard such a great character). Chris Cooper makes out the best, since as trainer Silent Tom Smith he doesn't have as much sappy dialogue as the others and can act without words (which he always does brilliantly). Elizabeth Banks isn't given much to do as Howard's young wife, Marcela, but she sure looks great in all those 1930's outfits. Gary Stevens, a real-life jockey, is a delightful surprise in the role of George Woolf-I would have liked to have seen more of him and Red Pollard together. And William H. Macy is funny as fictional sportscaster Tick Tock McLaughlin, who provides commentary on Seabiscuit's career. Kudos to Judy for noticing the films race choreographer, racing Hall of Famer Chris McCarron, as the great War Admiral's jockey, Charley Kurtsinger.

Predilection: I love horses, I love Thoroughbred racing and I thought Seabiscuit, an American Legend was the best book of its year. So, yes, a few.

Critters: Seabiscuit's stable buddy, Pumpkin, a goat, a dog and the other hundred or so horses. I was sorry Seabiscuit's half-brother, Grog, who looked just like him and was often used as a decoy, didn't make the film.

Food: Several dinners at the Howard's California estate. Used to show a jockey's obsession with making weight, or staying light enough to ride.

Visual Art: Lots and lots of horse pictures and photos.

Blatant Product Placement: NBC and Annheiser Busch (I donut count Ford and the Model T's, nor Howard's Buick dealership)

Soundtrack: By Randy Newman. Suited the picture, which is to say, it could sometimes beat you over the head with what it was trying to say.

Opening Titles: Very brief. No cast list until the end of the movie.

Theater Audience: Okay, here's where I have to 'fess up. My trip with Judy was my second viewing of the film-I went Friday night as well (I'm sorry, Judy! It was killing me!). So, I'll give you both crowds. Friday night the theater was packed -- mostly adults and more women than men (most of the men seemed to be on dates). The audience was pretty involved-applause broke out after the Seabiscuit/War Admiral match race (easily the most exciting moment of the film). Scattered applause after the movie. Monday morning we were three of perhaps twenty people in the theater. Judy clapped.

Sappy Factor: Are you kidding? Any more and you could bottle it and pour it on your pancakes.

Quirky Meter: Ross takes the film too seriously for quirk.

Squirm Scale: One bad fall off a horse and Pollard is shown vomiting to make weight.

Predictability Level: Huge. And director Ross is very helpful in telegraphing what's going to happen.

Tissue Usage: I know it was intended to need tissues, but I guess I'm a little too cynical about being Spielberged (i.e., blatantly manipulated) so for me - no.

Oscar Worthy: Its a solid effort, but I have to say no.

Nit Picking: Why are movie theaters so darn cold? Oh, you mean about the movie well, McCullough said Seabiscuit was sold for $2000, when he was actually sold for $8000. And I don't like narration, anyway.

Big Screen or Rental: Oh, big screen certainly, for the horse races. For a horse movie rental I'd recommend The Black Stallion. Or, for an underdog-makes-good film, how about Rocky? Or better yet, skip the movies for a weekend and read Laura Hillenbrand's wonderful book.

Length: Almost 2 and a half hours and it feels like it.

LOBO HOWLS: I'll give it a 7. Not a win, but still in the money.