The moment you see “Walt Disney Presents” in the opening credits for a film, you know almost exactly what to expect. It’s a Disney formula, especially applied to sports dramas, that barely wavers. They could probably apply it to any movie, and get the same result: “Walt Disney Presents: The Human Centipede — The Greatest Most Inspirational Ass-to-Mouth Tale Ever Told! It’d be the story of the poor, downtrodden Dr. Hieter, who overcame a multitude of obstacles (probably back in the 1950s or 60s) including a polio limp and a socioeconomically disadvantaged past, to become the first man ever to create a human anus-to-mouth chain. And when he sewed that final lip to rectum, the music would swell, the crowd would cheer, and the audience would wipe away tears. I’m getting a little misty just thinking about it.
What the story of Secretariat really didn’t need, however, was the Walt Disney Presents imprimatur. It’s a remarkable story, as is, and a better director and a better screenwriter would allow the events to dictate the story instead of the score and ham-fisted, wallowing-in-pity performances. This Secretariat is exhausting. Granted, the two hours of platitudes, overacting, contrived obstacles, and the need to paint every skeptical character as a heinous, dream-killing villain is par for the course. It’s the real-life story that could use a modicum of editing. There’s only so many times you can be an underdog, but Randall Wallace takes immeasurable pains, after each victory, to rebuild the obstacles, tear down the characters, and increase the odds. It becomes tedious, especially if you know — as 90 percent of the audience must — the ultimate outcome (*spoiler*: Secretariat wins! That’s why there’s a movie about him.).
It’s a movie that should be, first and foremost, about the horse and it’s amazing story. Instead, Secretariat is primarily about the horse’s owner, Penny Chenery (Diane Lane), a devoted housewife of 18 years who took over the family racing operation after the death of her mother because her father was incapacitated by dementia. Of course, she’s depicted as the sort of woman who knows her horses, but has the financial acumen of an Eisenhour-era hausfrau who has left such things to her husband all her life (it’s never mentioned, for instance, that after graduating from Smith College, Penny Chenery received a master’s degree in business from Columbia). Her husband (Dylan Walsh), quite naturally, is depicted as an unsupportive asshole for most of the film, who wants to sell the stable and keep his wife barefoot at home taking care of the kids, where she belongs, damnit. Same goes for the brother (Dylan Baker), a professor who wants to wash his hands of the family business, and abhors the idea of leaving it to a empty-headed woman with no business sense to run it into the ground. For some reason, there’s also an extraneous subplot about Penny’s daughter, who is passionate about protesting the Vietnam war, which is pointless unless there’s a threat of Secretariat being drafted.
When Secretariat, as a two year old, becomes the horse of the year, that’s the first of many climaxes for the film, one that is immediately followed by more obstacles: Penny’s father suffers a stroke (and later dies), which means that the horse is ripe for sale. If the family doesn’t get out from under the racing operation, they’ll be sunk, a notion I found unconvincing when contrasted with the $6 million inheritance tax with which they were saddled. You can’t leave behind a $6 million inheritance tax without being worth a lot more than $6 million.
But that’s only a fraction of the hurdles that are piled deep and high for Secretariat and Penny Chenery to climb over. The trainer, Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich, slumming for some Disney green), has to be brought out of retirement; the handler (Nelsan Ellis), is one of those Disney caricatures of 1960’s black men: A kind, good-hearted yes man, always with a smile on his face; and the only other person that Penny really has in her corner is the family secretary, who likes to shop at K-Mart. Really. Then there’s the glassy-eyed horse, which Wallace tries to humanize with long, loving close-ups of its eyes, a trick that might’ve worked if horses could act.
Indeed, by the time the Kentucky Derby arrives — the first race in the Triple Crown — the narrative arc has already been spent, and your patience exhausted. Action movies that pile on the climaxes are difficult enough, but when dealing with a Disney sports drama, there has to be another round of eye-rolling conflict in between each event so that the filmmakers can build another “rousing” crescendo. It’s like an all-night marathon of bad sex. Maybe there are days when you want to bump stinkies five or six times, but most people are depleted and exhausted after the first or second round and have no desire to go through all the foreplay again. Hell, Secretariat isn’t even good foreplay. It’s goes through the treacly, sentimental motions and then it pounds on your numb, raw inspirational spot while you’re trying to take a goddamn nap. It’s wearisome, and the shame of it is, Disney wastes a perfectly good tale by weighing it down with unnecessary hokum. My advice: Find one of what must be several documentaries on Secretariat, and let the events themselves provide all the inspiration the story needs.