Seabiscuit

Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper. Directed by Gary Ross. Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (anamorphic). Dolby Digital 5.1. 141 minutes. 2003. Universal Studios Home Video 23287. PG-13. $26.98.

Picture ***1/2
Sound ***1/2
Film ****

My father was a horse-racing fan. It ran in the family; his maternal grandfather and grand-uncle—the Dwyer brothers—were active and well-known in New York racing circles in the early years of the 20th century. While I never developed more than a passing interest in the sport, Dad came of age during the Great Depression, when thoroughbred racing was in full flower. And while I never thought to ask him, it would not surprise me in the slightest to learn that he had been at Pimlico racetrack in Maryland on that day in 1938 when Seabiscuit and the then-dominant horse of the era, War Admiral, met in the most famous match race of the 20th century. He would have loved this film.

So do I. Seabiscuit was the great underdog, the little horse that everyone had given up on. He was small and ordinary-looking, and his early years were unproductive. His first owners wore him down by running him frequently in the least important races to milk as much money as they could from him, while putting nothing into developing his true potential. He mostly lost.

But all that changed when a new owner (Charles Howard), trainer (Tom Smith), and jockey (Red Pollard) came into his life. Turned into a winner, he became more than a racehorse to millions of fans. During that pre-television, sports-happy decade, when horseracing, baseball, and boxing brought a little joy into the lives of those living through what was arguably the most difficult decade in American history, Seabiscuit was the proverbial comeback kid who inspired the public by beating the odds more than once.

Based on the best-selling book by Laura Hillenbrand, Seabiscuit is a refreshingly old-fashioned movie. It's not just the story of a famous racehorse, but the story of the three men who came together to make him a winner and, in doing so, healed some of their own personal demons.

On a small screen, the video transfer on this DVD looks impeccable. Blown up to video projection size, it turns just a little soft, but at least there was no attempt to compensate with edge enhancement, which crops up in only a few spots. And while there's nothing particularly explosive in the sound, apart from thundering hooves during the many thrilling race sequences, it doesn't really lack for anything, including a fine recording of Randy Newman's moving score.

The extras include the usual "Making of" documentary and an in-depth look at the making of a key sequence in the film. There's also a commentary from director Gary Ross and filmmaker Steven Soderbergh. It's interesting and informative, but sometimes wanders beyond the action on the screen. This isn't a problem during plot or character moments, but I found it annoying during the famous match race. You want Ross to talk about how the sequence was shot; what you get is chatter about how jockey Gary Stevens was chosen for the part of jockey George Woolf. Talk about a cognitive disconnect.

Stop the presses—after Universal had sent us the standard version of the DVD, we discovered that there's also a 2-disc Ultimate Gift Set. It includes four additional featurettes on the second disc, one of them the actual filmed footage of the 1938 match race. On a technical level, the video and audio transfers of the film on this premium box seem the same as on the 1-disc release. In fact, the first disc appears to be identical to the single-disc set. And neither set includes trailers. It would have been nice had the Gift Set put all of the features, apart from the director's commentary, on disc 2. With only the movie itself on disc 1, a higher bit rate would have been possible—maybe even a DTS track. While the Gift Set also includes some nice printed materials, it seems a little pricey for what you get. Unless the four extra features are of interest to you, the standard release will do just fine. Just be certain to get the widescreen version.

But the important thing here is the film itself. Seabiscuit is an exceptional movie: seamlessly designed and directed, with excellent performances all around, particularly from the three leads. It's the sort of film that stays with you, and will remain fresh years from now.—TJN

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