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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Seabiscuit (HD DVD)
Seabiscuit (HD DVD)
Universal // PG-13 // September 12, 2006 // Region 0
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted September 29, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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In the 1930s, there were essentially three sports: boxing, baseball, and horse racing, and one of the most brightly shining stars across them all was a thoroughbred named Seabiscuit. Despite his unparalleled pedigree, the diminutive, awkward looking horse didn't inspire any confidence in his owners, and they ran the young colt ragged in a series of humiliating races. Seabiscuit seemed destined for failure, a downward spiral shared by three other men. Empathic horse trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) preferred the company of animals to people, eager to heal broken animals rather than blast them in the head with a rifle. Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire) was too weak to excel at boxing and too tall to be taken seriously as a jockey, but the penniless, hot-headed young man plowed forward anyway, facing a seemingly unending string of devastating losses. Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) became a millionaire introducing the West Coast to the automobile but lost his zest for life when his young son died in a car wreck. These three men united and gave Seabiscuit a second chance, and he returned the favor by shattering records and dominating the track. He offered a beleaguered nation a true sense of hope, and both they and Seabiscuit's owner were eager to see the horse demolish his lone rival: Triple Crown winner War Admiral from the blue-blooded East coast circuit. Unfortunately for Seabiscuit and Pollard, tragedy still had several brutal blows left to deliver.

Seabiscuit is a warm, uplifting film that's both skillfully and lovingly crafted, and I recognize it as a well-made movie even though it's not exactly my cup of tea; the release of Cinderella Man on HD DVD a few months back had already filled my annual quota of endearing underdog dramas that gave the Depression-era impoverished a reason to stand up and cheer.

For a movie titled "Seabiscuit", it's not really about the legendary horse so much as the sense of purpose he brings to three tragic figures and how this underdog story roused a nation. Seabiscuit himself really doesn't have much of a presence on-screen; as marvelously as the racing sequences are staged, there's little other than spotting Tobey Maguire mounted on top to distinguish Seabiscuit from many of the film's other horses, and because Seabiscuit proves himself a champion within a few minutes of his first appearance on-screen, I never got the sense that he was all that much of an underdog. Four-to-one certainly meets the definition of "underdog", but those are hardly impossible odds. I could rattle off several other flaws as well: the cornball inspirational dialogue, dulling the impact of the early scenes by piling tragedy upon tragedy onto barely introduced characters, and taking perhaps too long to bring these three men together.

There's a difference between recognizing a perceived flaw and actually being bothered by it, and to be honest, I didn't have any nagging gripes while watching Seabiscuit. It's sweet without feeling cloying...rousing without that sinking feeling that Gary Ross is manipulatively yanking the audience's strings like a third-rate puppeteer. There's some of that, certainly, but not to the point of distraction. A fascination with horse racing isn't essential to enjoy Seabiscuit either; if anything, the movie doesn't place enough emphasis on its titular horse, and Seabiscuit himself could be swapped out for the tools of almost any competitive sport without missing a beat.

Seabiscuit does little storywise to really distinguish itself from any other underdog sports drama, but it's bolstered by a great deal of talent on both sides of the camera. As with his directorial debut Pleasantville, Gary Ross does a spectacular job turning back the clock so many decades, making the film's 1930s setting seem organic and tactile without resorting to artificially gimmicky reminders for the audiences or a hackneyed sepia-tinged palette. Ross has surrounded himself with a talented cast that wisely avoids overplaying the material, the lone exception being William H. Macy who's completely unrestrained as a hokey radio personality that keeps a stash of slide whistles and assorted noisemakers within arm's reach at all times. His "Tick Tock" McGlaughlin doesn't exactly gel with the tone of the rest of the movie, but he's an appreciated diversion that gives the melodrama a chance to pause and catch its breath.

Critics were almost unilaterally smitten with Seabiscuit, and the film was inundated with nominations when the award season rolled around. Although my general disinterest in underdog sports dramas may have kept me from feeling as enthusiastic about Seabiscuit as most filmgoers, its release on HD DVD is exceptional by any conceivable standard, so much so that this disc is at the very least an essential rental unless you're as jaded and cynical as I apparently am.

Video: I have to admit that the reason I fished Seabiscuit out of the review pool wasn't because of a long-standing love of thoroughbreds or a craving for something uplifting and emotional. No, I picked up this disc purely because so many posters on the AVS Forum and DVD Talk have pointed to its 2.39:1 high-definition presentation as reference quality, and all of that fawning is fully deserved. I've watched an even forty HD DVDs since the format's launch, and Seabiscuit is undoubtedly one of the two best looking discs I've seen to date, running neck and neck with Paramount's pretty-but-vapid Æon Flux. Seabiscuit approaches perfection in every conceivable way: its colors are rich and vibrant, black levels and contrast are both robust, and every object in the frame -- from rolling hillsides deep in the background to each hair on Seabiscuit's hide -- is startlingly detailed. Even when Seabiscuit is racing at a full gallop and the backgrounds are whizzing by -- the type of blazingly fast motion that wreaks havoc on cable and satellite -- the image never falters. Truly outstanding.

Audio: The only reasonable gripe that could be raised about Seabiscuit's audio is that Universal hasn't offered a TrueHD track, but its Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 soundtrack leaves little room to complain. The film's sound design was nominated for numerous awards, and even in Seabiscuit's first few minutes, it's instantly apparent why. The remarkably immersive soundfield is bustling with activity, fleshing out its Depression-era setting with ambient sounds in every channel as well as offering innumerable smooth pans and localized effects. The early generation automobile motors and thunderous gallops are accompanied by a substantial low-frequency roar, and the combination of dozens of hooves pounding against the track with the din of tens of thousands of enthusiastic spectators leave the racing sequences particularly engaging.

Along with the first-rate Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 soundtrack, this HD DVD also includes the usual assortment of dubs and subtitles.

Supplements: This HD DVD of Seabiscuit contains all of the extras -- minus the printed material -- from the 2-disc special edition DVD. Veering away from the traditional watch-and-respond approach, writer/director Gary Ross is interviewed by Steven Soderbergh in the disc's audio commentary. Soderbergh taking the reins as moderator works extremely well; their discussion often refers to what's happening on-screen but isn't anchored by it, and it covers a great deal of material, especially concerning Ross' mindset behind many of his directorial decisions as well as how those choices were executed.

The fifteen minute "Bringing the Legend to Life: The Making of Seabiscuit" alternates between some of the key talent behind the scenes who briefly introduce themselves and what they contributed to the film. "Winner's Circle: The Heroes Behind the Legend", clocking in around twenty minutes, covers similar territory but more as it relates to the cast. Ross spends four minutes commenting on his preparation and thought process as a director in "Anatomy of a Movie Moment", relating them to an early tragic scene in the film. Also running around five minutes is a montage of photos Jeff Bridges snapped on the set.

Two featurettes delve into the true story of Seabiscuit, and the first of them is titled just that. The 40 minute A&E special, narrated by William H. Macy, is the more interesting of the two as it's allotted enough time to explore the story in-depth compared to the cursory "Seabiscuit: Racing Through History". Watching "The True Story of Seabiscuit" while the details of the film are still fresh in mind is worthwhile just to note the differences between the screen version and reality, something I didn't get much of a sense of from "Racing Through History".

One especially welcomed extra is footage of the actual 1938 match race with War Admiral. The race is presented in its entirety, although it's over in two minutes. A redundant 13 minute HBO First Look promotional featurette rounds out the extras.

Universal, I'm begging...pleading...please, please remove the audio from your "you've paused the disc for twenty seconds" screensaver. It's several shades of annoying to pause a documentary, answer the phone, and then have an already-repetitive minute-long music cue blare over and over again.

Conclusion: Seabiscuit isn't really to my tastes, but I'm apparently just among a handful who weren't won over by this underdog period piece. Regardless, there's no denying that it's an especially well-crafted film benefitting from a great deal of talent both in front of and behind the camera, and its release on HD DVD trumps nearly everything released on the fledgling format to date. Recommended.

Standard image disclaimer: the pictures scattered around this review were lifted from the official movie site and don't necessarily reflect the appearance of this HD DVD.
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