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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, July 25, 2003

'Seabiscuit' is excellent respite from comic book and sequel summer

By Jack Garner
Gannett News Service

SEABISCUIT (PG-13) Four Stars (Excellent)

"Seabiscuit" brings a popular best seller to the screen, the rousing story of a race horse that captured the public's fancy during the Depression and brought together three disparate men in search of new beginnings. Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges and Chris Cooper co-star for writer-director Gary Ross. Universal, 129 minutes.

In 1937, an underdog horse named Seabiscuit caught the public's fancy and helped distract the nation from the perils of the Great Depression.

In 2003, an underdog movie called "Seabiscuit" hopes to capture the public's fancy and distract filmgoers from the perils of an endless summer of comic book heroes and bombastic movie sequels.

And now that we've seen it, we'd say it's got a good chance to land in the winner's circle. A movie this rousing, this finely crafted and this entertaining deserves a garland of roses around its neck.

"Seabiscuit" stars Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges and Chris Cooper and has been fashioned with care and passion by writer-director Gary Ross, adapting the best-selling book by Laura Hillenbrand.

The film is the book's warm-hearted cinematic equivalent.

Like the author, Ross stresses the come-from-behind aura surrounding the four major characters of the story. In it, a horse goes from virtual nagdom to national champion, thanks to three men who were just as down and almost as out as the horse.

They are:

  • The horse's owner Charles Howard (Bridges), a self-made man who built a California empire in the nascent days of the automobile industry. But just when he's at his peak, tragedy strikes his family. The always-brilliant Bridges oozes Howard's boyish charm and buoyant optimism, at least until he's knocked low and needs the inspiration of a horse to rebound.
  • Trainer Tom Smith (Cooper), a veteran cowboy and horseman who feels fenced in by barbed wire on the frontier and by the encroachments and bustle of 20th century life. He'd rather spend his time with a horse than a human any day. And the horses apparently love him, too. Cooper's performance has remarkable depth and flavor.
  • Jockey Red Pollard (Maguire), a colorful, hard-crusted refugee of tank-town boxing matches and free-for-all horse races. Abandoned by indigent parents at 15 to fend for himself, he's had little luck with his fists or his horse sense until he finds himself astride Seabiscuit. Maguire projects all of Pollard's scrappy qualities, his competitive nature and his self-taught love of literature and wit, as well as the deep-seated anger that occasionally clouds his life.
  • And the title character, Seabiscuit, who despite impressive roots, has none of the size, physical traits or apparent talent of his illustrious predecessors. But Smith likes the hunger and competitive nature he sees in the horse's eyes. With the right — although unorthodox — training, along with strong doses of respect and belief, Seabiscuit soars.

Before he's done, the animal captures the imagination of a nation hungry for a comeback hero. As Hillenbrand has pointed out, in 1938, the number-one newsmaker in terms of column inches of newsprint was not Franklin D. Roosevelt, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Lou Gehrig or Clark Gable. It was Seabiscuit.

To play the horse, director Ross employs 10 look-alike animals whose various talents are combined into the portrait of Seabiscuit. The effort pays off with a believable portrayal of a unique animal/athlete. The film's several racing scenes are easily the most realistic and invigorating ever seen. Ross puts cameras above, behind, in front of and even atop clusters of powerful horses, zooming around racetracks. It's easily the closest most of us have ever been to the horseracing experience. And the addition of a new character — colorful racetrack announcer Tick Tock McGlaughlin (William H. Macy) adds welcome levity.

To Ross's credit, the four threads of the film are carefully intertwined for clarity and rich emotional impact. Although the title character doesn't surface until some 50 minutes into the movie, the stories of Pollard, Howard and Smith are all moving. Emotions build gradually and climax with the horse's wonderful entrance through early morning fog. And then the film becomes a beautifully shot, classic sports saga of triumph over nearly impossible odds.

The combination of a rousing sports story with the exploits of three men who reverse the misfortunes of their lives is unbeatable.

Kind of like Seabiscuit.

Rated PG-13 for profanity, violence, adult themes.