Note: This review is based on the single-disc edition of Seabiscuit. A Limited Edition 2-disc set is also available with additional special features.
Everyone loves an underdog, and I'm no exception. To be honest, I have a soft spot for films that chronicle the life of a broken man who eventually finds the strength to overcome huge obstacles to make his way in this world. Based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand, Seabiscuit tells the story of three such men, who form a team around a similarly broken horse and become folk heroes to the working men and women of America in the 1930s.
These three men lost something very important in their lives, but together with a small, unappreciated horse, manage to overcome their pasts. Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) loses a son in an accident involving the very machine he used to create his fortune: the automobile. John "Red" Pollard (Tobey Maguire), the young jockey, loses his parents, who abandon him during the depression in the hopes he could make a living using his gift with horses. Meanwhile, the cowboy and horse trainer, Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), is slowly losing what he loves most: the wilderness.
Although Seabiscuit takes nearly 45 minutes to set up these characters, not once does the pace seem overwhelming, nor does it become tedious. As a matter of fact, I believe I enjoyed the set up more the second time. There is a lot of information and character development taking place here, but specific actions are featured to show the emotional character of these three men, whether it be Red's need to participate in illegal boxing matches to survive or Tom's need to save a lame horse from destruction. Each scene speaks volumes, allowing audiences to truly understand each man in a short amount of time. From the pieces shown in the film, it's almost as if these three men were destined for one another, and once they did come together, they made history.
That's not to say this entire film revolves around romantic notions of redemption. No, this film also includes some amazing action sequences. The race footage is exceptional. It's very fast and very powerful. The racing scenes are shot in such a way as to recreate the thrill of not only being in the stands, but also on the horse's back. What The Fast and the Furious does for illegal street racing, Seabiscuit does for horses. What's more, these scenes really show the electricity this horse created in the crowds, who cheered him on to victory against much larger and supposedly much faster horses.
While this film excels on both the emotional and action sides of the story, what impressed me most is how the story is so firmly planted in its time period. Horse racing was one of the largest sporting events of the 1930s. With amazing wardrobes and sets, and with a narrative that includes old newsreel type footage to describe the time and atmosphere of the world, Seabiscuit really sets the table for the era. After the stock market crash and the depression, Americans really needed a hero, and watching this film makes it obvious why they turned to Seabiscuit, a small horse who came to symbolize the fighting spirit of the working class.
One of the few detractions of this film is also one of its great attributes. Instead of packing every bit of information into this two and a half hour film, director Gary Ross chose to focus on the emotional story. Without a doubt, this is the best choice as I've already stated. However, certain events made me question the film's detail. For example, Red's parents abandoned him when he was 15 years old and at least one scene in the film led me to believe the jockey searched for them. This was only hinted at and was never followed through to any sort of conclusion. This doesn't hamper the impact of the film, but it did pull me out of the story. This certainly helped remind me of Red's history, but that loose thread of a storyline always kept me wondering.
Seabiscuit is more than the story about a race horse. It's a story about the potential that resides in all of us and the need we all have for a second chance. Certainly, the horse that meant so much to millions of working class Americans is the centerpoint of this film's action, but at its heart is the struggle of the underdog to overcome obstacles in order to make a dream become a reality.
I'm impressed. Very impressed. Universal and DreamWorks present Seabiscuit in a spectacular 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen that truly captures the beauty of this film. I saw nothing wrong with this transfer. Instead, I saw vibrant colors (including wonderful reds, blacks, and dark browns), sharp detail that managed to stay true well into the backgrounds and into the shadows, and great texture. Both bright daylight scenes and the darker, poorly lit scenes appear nearly flawless. Plus, I saw no evidence of grain or of artificial enhancement problems.
Keeping step with the amazing video transfer, the sound on Seabiscuit was equally impressive. Presented here in 5.1 Dolby Digital, the track really scores high marks in my book. What really stood out are the race scenes. Here, the rears are used to immerse audiences into the crowd at the race track, the woofer is used to add a deep, pounding reality to the sound of the horses hammering the earth, and there is great separation along the front channels to capture movement. Voices always come through crisp and clean, and the score by Randy Newman sounds magnificent.
The disc also features Spanish and French subtitles, and is close captioned for the hearing impaired.
THE BONUS FEATURES
Quality over quantity. That's what the Seabiscuit special features are all about. You don't get much, but what you get is very enjoyable.
First up is a wonderful screen-specific commentary featuring writer/director Gary Ross and filmmaker Steven Soderbergh. This pair, who interact very well together, discuss the era and history surrounding the story of Seabiscuit (which really helps in the appreciation of the film) as well as the filmmaking narrative decisions. What generally happens is Soderbergh asks a question or points out an item of interest, and Ross discusses his thoughts on the subject, with the occasional interjection by Soderbergh. This is easily one of the most enjoyable commentaries produced this year.
Bringing the Legend to Life: The Making of Seabiscuit is a 15-minute look at the horses, sets, and costumes used to create the film. Although this brief featurette amounts to nothing more than talking heads interlaced with behind-the-scenes footage, it is informative and entertaining. I would've liked a bit more in-depth coverage, but at least it's more detailed than a marketing fluff piece would've been.
Anatomy of a Movie Moment is basically Gary Ross's examination of the scene featuring the death of Charles Howard's son. Through interview footage and film comparisons, Ross explains his intentions for each shot and how he was able to make the scene such an impact. What this short featurette really shows is Ross's love for his craft, which is readily evident based on his enthusiasm for the featured scene.
My favorite featurette is Seabiscuit: Racing Through History, a wonderful historical perspective of the era. With information on Seabiscuit, horse racing during the 1930s, and the hard life of jockeys, this brief history lesson really had my attention. I only wish there was more to it than a mere 15 minutes.
Also on tap is Photo Finish: Jeff Bridges on the Set Photographs, which is an impressive collage of photos the actor (and very talented photographer) took during the filming of the movie, and The Longshot: A Special Message from Buick, a quick history of the car manufacturer that isn't quite as commercial as I was expecting.
You also get Promotional Material, featuring the soundtrack spot and a Universal MasterCard commercial disguised as entertainment value, Cast and Crew Biographies, Production Notes, and a trailer for Schindler's List.
Apparently you can access Seabiscuit content using the DVD-ROM portion of this disc and a computer with Internet access, but I could only find the typical Universal links.
You should note that the featurettes are presented in a full frame format, but they look very sharp and feature bright, vibrant colors.
Seabiscuit isn't just a horse movie. Although it features plenty of great racing action, it's also an inspirational true story with an emotional backbone. With nearly perfect audio and video presentations, great extra features, and a solid film that can be enjoyed more than once, I can't recommend this one enough.
The only thing keeping this from being placed in the highly touted "Collector's Series" category is the lack of a more in-depth historical documentary, which just happens to be one of the many additional extra features found on the 2-disc, limited edition set. Without the opportunity to see that other edition, I can only speculate, but I'm willing to bet big fans of the film will want to go with the larger set, while passive fans will be more than pleased with the single-disc edition.