Top critical review
Can't Go Wrong If You Like Horses
on December 13, 2003
If Ron Howard directed 'Seabiscuit', the film would have, in all probability, drowned in its own sappiness. Gary Ross manages to avoid over-romanticizing, which is a considerable accomplishment, bearing in mind Hollywood's usual addendum of tear-jerking moments when it comes to adapting "prize-winning-semi-biographical" novels. I haven't read Laura Hillenbrand's novel, and I think it's for the better - the film was a tad too long anyways, and it would have been inconceivable for me to sit through it if I knew what was coming. It is a well-structured motion picture that won't surprise but will sustain interest. Despite the occasional slip into schmaltz (boy and horse interacting, aawww; Randy Newman's embroidered score), under Gary Ross' practiced ('Pleasantville') guidance 'Seabiscuit' is still a notch above the average Dream Factory melodrama.
The film looks gorgeous. John Schwartzman's camera-work impresses, especially considering his previous efforts ('Armageddon' umm... 'Airheads'...) The mid-20th Century is well-portrayed, and the races are brilliantly photographed.
The film also has heart, and most of it comes from the inspired performances, especially from its three leading stars. Jeff Bridges is one of the most underrated Hollywood actors (his Oscar-worthy performances in Peter Weir's 'Fearless' and the Coen bro's 'The Big Lebowski' were ignored by the Academy), and gives a multi-layered performance as a kind but overly-motivated man, evading recollection of his son's loss by exploiting a young jockey (Maguire in his most nuanced performance since Ang Lee's 'The Ice Storm') and a beat-down small horse with extraordinary abilities. Chris Cooper does 'subliminal' as the horse's proprietor - he's a tranquil animal lover, who saved that horse and put his faith in it.
Clearly, above all things, the film belongs to its horses - gracious, they elegantly gallop towards their fate - the viewers are treated with multiple angles of the race, as well as POV shots of the jockeys that are invigorating. Seabiscuit, in spite of his minor bulk, is utterly believable as the champion of the stadium. It's not all triumphs for him, and the film, despite the flaws, competently guides its audience into cheering for its protagonist.
Not a masterpiece by any standards, 'Seabiscuit' is for horse-lovers and/or for younger kids, as a source of inspiration. The messages are pounded into the viewer's head, borderline frustrating, but Ross' assured direction will keep an average viewer mildly riveted.
PS If you are not too into melodramas, horses, or Tobey Maguire boasting thinning red hair, then consider 'Seabiscuit' a 'rainy Sunday night movie'. On a Friday night, you'll think of ten thousand other things to do but be enveloped in Hollywood gloss. But on a rainy Sunday night, with a partner of the opposite sex perhaps, it would mae a purrfect treat.