Andy Bockelman: ‘Secretariat’: Always root for the underhorse

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Andy Bockelman is a member of the Denver Film Critics Society, and his movie reviews appear in Explore Steamboat and the Craig Daily Press.

If there’s one thing Disney has taught us from “The Mighty Ducks,” “The Rookie,” “Air Bud” and too many more movies to count, it’s that the best results in sports always come when the odds are against you.

That lesson is furthered in the equine epic “Secretariat.”

In 1969, Denver homemaker Penny Tweedy (Diane Lane) is called back home to Virginia upon the death of her mother. At the family horse farm, Meadow Stables, business has been in decline for years, along with her health of her father, Christopher Chenery (Scott Glenn).

Unwilling to let a once great establishment go belly up, Penny decides to take charge. Seeking out the help of French-Canadian trainer Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), she makes a move to retain the rights to a new colt sired by one of the top racehorses in the nation, Bold Ruler.

Becoming a feisty competitor, the chestnut horse, Big Red, soon becomes a darling on the racetrack under the title Secretariat.

But, as financial matters become more and more drastic for Penny, she must put all her effort into getting her thoroughbred to do the impossible: win the Triple Crown, an achievement that has not been made by any horse in 25 years.

Lane puts an admirable amount of effort into a role that’s not greatly conceived, with wife and mother Penny striving to prove herself in a business that is largely a boys’ club. By the way, did we mention that she’s a housewife? Because the topic only comes up every five minutes, in case you didn’t hear it the first hundred times.

Malkovich is as boisterous as ever as argumentative but knowledgeable Laurin, whose conduct is as loud and garish as his god-awful lounge lizard wardrobe.

Speaking in no more than a raspy whisper, Glenn is a good presence as Penny’s father, who continually tells his daughter to stay the course no matter what anybody else says.

Margo Martindale is a delight as Miss Ham, Chenery’s gal Friday, from whom Secretariat gets his name. Jockey Otto Thorwath also does fine work in his acting debut as Ron Turcotte, the rider who guides the horse in his quest for greatness.

Following suit from about 90 percent of Disney films in the last couple decades, the moral of the story here is, as always, “Follow your heart and your dreams will come true.”

Not that it’s a bad way to live, but the sheer number of movies waving this banner tends to weaken each entry that comes along.

The straightforward presentation of Secretariat’s story helps it along, with a few messages about sexism and the 1960s and ’70s counterculture thrown in for good measure.

Some handsome camera work along the racetracks of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes, also helps, with many shots coming from atop the steed.

Like the title champion, “Secretariat” starts out slow then rockets toward the finish line. It may not be lengths ahead of racing movies like “Seabiscuit” and “The Black Stallion,” but once the race is finished, it deserves a sugar cube and a pat on the head, anyway.

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