Disney gets a lot of grief for these feel-good sports movies that tend to up the schmaltz and oversimplify the story. Say what you want about them, they usually have a helluva lot of heart and are (at least a little) smarter than their critics give them credit for.
I’ll freely admit to liking my fair share of Disney’s past attempts at recreating period sports films (Miracle, Invincible, Cool Runnings, The Rookie). It is with regret then that I inform you that Secreterat, a film about a horse with a heart more than double the size of a normal horse, lacks anything resembling heart.
For the better part of its near two-hour running time it also lacks style, brains, and cinematic craftsmanship. Although the film gives credit to Elizabeth Ham (Margo Martindale) for naming the horse it never specifically states what the name is supposed to mean. If the film is any indication, the definition of Secretariat is the absence or antithesis of subtlety. This movie would make a punch in the face feel somehow understated.
The tale of housewife Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) and the greatest horse the sport has ever known has been boiled down to empty platitudes, dialogue so corny it’s best reserved for old episodes of Hee Haw, and lessons so thoroughly stuffed in one’s throat it’s hard not to gag.
The film isn’t so much awful as incredibly mediocre and poorly made. Lane is a wonderful actress, but you’d hardly know it from this performance. Most of the rest of the cast fits into one-note caricatures: John Malkovich is the crazy one, Nelsan Ellis is the wise kindly Negro, Kevin Connolly is the loving husband who doesn’t know how to support his wife, and Scott Glenn is trapped in a role that barely requires a pulse. Throw in some clunky biblical narration, just enough ‘cute’ hippie rebellion, and countless shots of the sun setting, and you’ve got one mess of a movie.
That’s not to say the film is all bad. Things do pick up in the final act – when the focus turns more to the horse on the track and not the melodrama elsewhere. Speaking of the horse, he gives the film’s best, and only realistic, performance. The races themselves are recreated with a skill that seems to be lacking in every other shot of the film, and I’ll even give a kind word for the shaky horsey cam that adds some interesting shots from the jockey’s perspective and (thankfully) isn’t overused.
The entire film just feels flat. Maybe it’s the corny dialogue or perhaps its the ham-fisted structure of the story, but Secretariat doesn’t resonate the way it should. Many of this type of overly schmaltzy sports films get by in balancing that with some strong performances and real emotion. Sadly, in this race, Secretariat isn’t a winner.