Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway
If you want a "Rocky" story with an equestrian heart, you have it with Disney's "Secretariat".
The film is a true tall-tale of the most winning horse in history. Diane Lane stars as horse owner Penny Chenery. Right from the get-go, Penny is up against it. Her mother dies and the horse farm faces dire straits, as huge debt plunges the idyllic Chenery farm (complete with blue sky and technicolor stables) into near bankruptcy.
Enter a conniving horse villain that wants to sell the horses for half of what they are worth. But alas, in true Disney fashion, Penny won't budge. She has the soul of a romantic horse-whisperer and the ambition of a champion owner. Diane Lane gives us just what we expect with dramatic heart and soft nuances of body language in her performance. She is not meant to be a sit- at- home housewife. Underneath her warm exterior, Lane's Chenery is as competitive as her horse and built for the carnivorous showplace of the track, circa 1972.
One of the most rewarding aspects of "Secretariat" is its facile ability to show the symbiotic relationship between owner, horse and trainer. And moreover, the apprehension within the culture of the Kentucky Derby---its greed and ego. There is malevolence with mint juleps, but without guns. We get a history lesson with our Cinderella- hooved story. The horse Secretariat apparently became a kind of counterculture hero, dismissed as an old ailing horse at the time of the "flower power" movement.
Watching the film, you get the feeling that Secretariat was cheered right along with Abbie Hoffman and Allen Ginsberg. Indeed, one glance at Lucien Laurin's (John Malkovich) hallucinogenically bright wardrobe will convince you that it's possible. The lasting smartness and empathy of the film is that it treats the horse himself as an actual character and personality, and it does so without any anthropomorphic wizardry or Disney cartooning.
Secretariat's eyes are full of as much pathos and determination as Clint Eastwood or Eli Wallach. During a pre-race walk, our equine hero gives a hostile exchange to the opponent horse directly out of "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly."
A Disney film is an American tradition in many ways. We know what we are getting: magic, benevolent mayhem, and heart-flung celebrational stories. What makes "Secretariat" stand out from the rest of the pack, is its perfect interplay between both human and animal worlds, counterculture youth and wealthy cliques. The dynamic harmony produced without any cloying push, gives each scene a quirky joy that mirrors the clashing patterns of Lucien Laurin's many suits.