Reading “Seabiscuit the book”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0449005615/ was a magical experience, and I knew from the beginning that it would be quite a feat for “the movie”:http://www.imdb.com/Title?0329575 to come close.
The book appears, on first read, to be a perfect candidate to be turned into a movie. It’s exciting, it’s filled with great and vivid characters, and it’s wonderfully paced.
The script used in the movie, however, illustrates how difficult it is to turn a story with such sweep into a movie. Introducing all of the characters and covering all of the events is an incredible challenge, and the movie justifiably drops a lot of detail about people and even entire events.
Many critics complain that it takes over 30 minutes for Seabiscuit the horse to make his first appearance in the movie. Now, the book’s author, Laura Hillenbrand, takes her own good time in bringing in the horse in the book, to very little detriment to the final product. But the technique fares less well in the theater, and the beginning of the movie drags a bit because you’ve no idea where the plot is going.
Our main characters are introduced straight away, and Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper and Tobey Maguire are brought to us in touching manners. But the emphasis on these characters continues throughout the movie, to the substantial exclusion of Seabiscuit himself. The horse is lost as a character — he’s the center of the movie but has little enough personality.
Certainly, physically Seabiscuit (or the dozens of horses who play him) is exactly right — too small, knobby-kneed and with an awful gait. I can only imagine the owners of the horses who were hired to play our hero, suddenly offered money so that their ungainly cart horses could appear on screen. It must’ve been quite a shock!
Seabiscuit’s opponent War Admiral is also well-cast — the horses playing him are enormous, muscled, sleek and dark. But so little time is spent on this horse that we’re left at a loss as to why he might be popular in his own right. No Maverick vs. Iceman is this — viewers of _Seabiscuit_ will have no argument over who to favor, nobody will come away favoring the coldly efficient War Admiral over the jaunty and personably misfit Seabiscuit. Something’s been lost there, I fear, when it’s all black-and-white.
Also disappointing was Elizabeth Banks as Marcela Howard, Jeff Bridges’ wife. Marcela was supposed to be of Mexican descent, but the actress’s accent was simply that of a ditzy modern woman. Marcela was played with plenty of the strength necessary, and even the proper bearing, but out came a sheen of low class every time she opened her mouth. Where did this woman come from in the midst of a classy cast playing their characters to a t?
Well, not 100% to a t. see, Chris Cooper, playing trainer Tom Smith, has lines. Smith was a famously silent person, monosyllabic to a fault. It’s obviously difficult to move a movie forward with a character who has very few lines, but Cooper should at least have spoken at length only when necessary.
Many of Cooper’s lines could have been offloaded to the narrators. That’s narrators, plural, which is kind of bizarre and which works poorly. PBS’s David McCullough narrates a great deal at the beginning, setting the scene for the movie and making it feel like a documentary. Later, William H. Macy comes in as the fictitious racetrack announcer Tick-Tock McGlaughlin and the narration switches from ultra-serious History Channel-style to wacky radio voiceovers. The change is confusing and even a bit disruptive to the feel of the movie. One or the other would’ve worked better. Tick-Tock could certainly have been an appropriate foil for the viewer, entirely unfamiliar (as many are today) with horses and racing; he could’ve explained almost every detail to us in the didactic manner that announcers can adopt.
All of this is not to say that Seabiscuit is an awful movie. Far from it — scene after scene is touching and well-played, the plot is coherent, and the script is filled with good lines. Even real-world jockey Gary Stevens as on-screen jockey “Iceman” Woolf is great. The races are exciting and well-shot. But, see, the book was almost perfect, so the standard I’m holding the movie to is unfair and unachievable. At that, it still stacks up tolerably.