I'd like to address the young girls who are thinking about watching "The Derby Stallion." You are going to like this movie. That's fine. It has horses and your favorite teen heartthrob in an adorable leading role. For a girl your age, this is enough.
But the truth is, you see, "The Derby Stallion" is actually a very bad movie. While you might not notice such a thing now, you're sure to look back in ten years and figure it out then. By that time, you'll have seen enough other, better movies to realize that this one's riddled in lazy cliché and sloppy formula work. The direction is poor, the supporting cast is shaky, the sluggish pacing is aggravating.
Of course, you won't care so much right now, because you just want to watch Zac Efron, that young star from "High School Musical" and the upcoming "Hairspray," and if you have to sit through something that's not that great, then fine. For that, I'll say fair enough, especially considering Efron is the best thing about the movie. Filmed before his star-making turn in "High School Musical," "The Derby Stallion" shows a solid young actor comfortable in front of the camera. Better, he's determined to make the most out of problematic material, and while we never believe the character, we believe Efron. He's a natural who deserves his new star status, and if he can play his next few years right, he's destined for bigger, better things.
At Zac's side is Bill Cobbs. You know Cobbs as one of the old guys in "Night at the Museum." Your parents will recognize him as one of the most dependable character actors of the past several decades. Cobbs is incapable of a bad performance, no matter how crummy the material, and even though he's relegated to an underwritten Wise Old Mentor role, he makes us smile by finding whatever he can in the corners of the screenplay.
But you can see both these actors in other, better movies. You do not need to waste your time with "The Derby Stallion."
In the film, Efron plays Patrick, a 15-year-old who's grown tired of baseball and has no friends his own age; his closest pal is retired jockey Houston (Cobbs), who soaks a troubled past in alcohol. That is, the movie tells us he is an alcoholic; the character ultimately does nothing to indicate this, aside from a few sips from a flask now and then, The supposed drinking problem is just one of the movie's structural flaws: it wants to give Patrick's parents a reason to complain about his older friend, but shies away from showing young viewers the uglier side of drinking. And so Houston is described as a boozer but never comes across as one.
I'm reminded of "Shiloh," a joyous little film I hope you have seen. That movie combined a magical tone with an unflinching view of its flawed characters. Its "cranky old man" character felt like a genuine person. In "The Derby Stallion," Houston feels like a plot point, a hastily patched together collection of half-baked story ideas. (This is especially true early in the film, when we flash back to a doomed romance that promises great drama and offers none, and again later in the film, when it is revealed Houston has a heart problem - a fact clumsily added in for predictable emotional trickery in the third act.)
Anyway. Patrick dreams of riding in the Steeplechase, and after initial hesitation from his family, soon mom and dad are eagerly rooting him on. You might not realize it, girls, but this is a serious storytelling problem. You see, we're tossed all this formulaic stuff about Patrick fighting with his father over his true dreams, yet the screenplay anxiously dumps this line of thought all too easily, just as it does with almost all of its other ideas.
Of course, many of you young girls are quite smart, and you're bound to pick up on many of this movie's technical faults. Watch, for example, the big race at the end. You'll notice it not only lacks in any sort of suspense, but it's clumsily shot and edited, a jumble of unimpressive shots, many of which are noticeably sped up to make the trotting horses seem like they're running faster than they really are. These final moments make the movie look ugly and cheap.
I know you're at the age where you'll like a lot more stuff now than you will when you grow up, but that doesn't mean you should have to watch a lame movie just because some cute guy is in it. There are so many great movies about young heroes and their horses out there for you to discover instead, movies that will captivate you in all the ways great cinema can. "Dreamer" is a recent movie that shows how to start with a familiar formula and end with gentle wonder. "Tex," while definitely for older tweens, tackles genuine teen emotion in ways "The Derby Stallion" never even tries. And, of course, you must track down copies of "The Black Stallion," "Black Beauty," or "National Velvet" and learn why those titles have remained so well-loved all these years.
Trust me. Zac Efron will be in other movies. You don't need to waste your youth here.
Video & Audio
The anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer is soft and occasionally grainy, revealing the film's unappealing low budget cinematography. The soundtrack is offered in Dolby 5.1, Dolby stereo, and DTS; all of them sound more or less the same, which says too much about the serviceable yet unimpressive surround tracks. No subtitles are provided.
Echo Bridge knows their target audience: the film's older, original EPK featurette (containing typical on-set interviews with the cast) is paired with a newer all-Zac interview and a photo gallery that focuses mainly on the young star. The DVD also comes packaged with two Zac Efron postcard-sized pics and four Zac temporary tattoos. To round out the Tiger Beat feel, you can also download photos and "buddy icons" using the disc's DVD-ROM feature.
In non-Zac content, an set of "Stories from the Shoot" include yet another batch of cast interviews. Three songs from the late Billy Preston, who appears in a minor role and adds oddly out-of-place music to the film, can be played. Finally, the movie's trailer rounds out the set.
A collection of previews for other Echo Bridge releases play as the disc loads; you can skip past them if you choose.
Look, I don't want to come across as the grumpy old man who doesn't get movies made for the younger set these days. But here's the thing: I grew up watching a lot of lightweight movies just like this, and it wasn't until later that I realized that most of them were actually just as lousy as "The Derby Stallion" is. I'm just trying to save some of you girls the trouble of later realizing the same. Skip It, and when your friends suggest it'd be great to watch on a Friday night get-together, just tell 'em no thanks.