If there's one genre Disney is most notorious for other than animated fairytales, it would be the inspirational underdog story. If you've seen Remember the Titans, Miracle, Invincible, The Rookie, The Greatest Game Ever Played or virtually any movie of its kind, you'll be able to foresee every twist and turn of Secretariat. Like fairytales, these movies all follow a step-by-step formula. Yet, this story never grows old no matter how many times you see it. Secretariat is a movie you walk into knowing exactly what you're going to get and it graciously delivers what the audience wants: To be uplifted.
One of the film's several underdogs is Diane Lane as Penny Chenery, a devoted housewife and mother of four. When her mother passes away Penny decides to take charge of her ill father's Meadow Stables. Without much experience in horseracing, she hires a down-on-his-luck trainer with a tacky fashion sense named Lucien Laurin, played by John Malkovich. Penny and Lucien believe they have found a contender in a horse called Big Red. They give Big Red the nickname of Secretariat and recruit Ron Turcotte, a hard-edged jockey played by newcomer Otto Thorwarth. The future of the farm all relies on Secretariat winning the Triple Crown, a feat that at the time had not been accomplished in 25 years.
With a blonde hairdo and strong-willed attitude, it's hard not to compare Penny Chenery to Leigh Anne Tuohy, the heroine of The Blind Side whom Sandra Bullock won an Oscar for portraying. While both real life women have much in common, Lane makes the part of Penny her own. Lane is plucky and encouraging as a lady who refuses to give up on her horse no matter how high the odds are. Her Academy Award quality performance is the guiding light of Secretariat and raises it above being just another feel-good movie.
What holds Secretariat back from becoming a great horseracing movie, like Seabiscuit, is the lack of memorable supporting characters. Don't get me wrong. Every actor in the movie is wonderful, which in addition to Malkovich includes Nelsan Ellis from True Blood as a horse groomer and James Cromwell as a wealthy horse owner and breeder. But where Seabiscuit had three intriguing, complex characters in Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper and Tobey Maguire, few of the supporting players stand out in Secretariat. The movie's shining human star is Lane and Lane alone.
Secretariat does share one fundamental element with Seabiscuit though and that is a terrific movie horse. Big Red immediately captures the audience's heart from the instant he's born, as corny as that may sound. The film's strongest moments are its breathtaking racing scenes, elevated by stunning cinematography from Dean Semler and a magical score by Nick Glennie-Smith. Even when you know the outcome of the big race, you're left stricken with intensity. Once the race reaches its conclusion, you might very well cheer out loud in the theater. That's the key to making a familiar story such as this seem fresh.