I did not want to see 'Seabiscuit.' I thought it would be either: a.) an update of 'Old Yeller' but with a horse; b.) the "inspirational" story of a jockey with a fatal illness; or c.) a movie about a snack cracker. Luckily, I was wrong on all three counts. 'Seabiscuit' is none of those things; rather, it is the kind of Movie (with a capital "M") they don't make anymore, an unabashedly old-fashioned, romantic, feel-good entertainment that lifts the spirits and inspires the soul to sing. It is a simple story, well told, that earns its big emotions by being impeccably crafted, wonderfully acted and extraordinary photographed. Call me blindsided.
Based on the non-fiction book by Laura Hillenbrand, 'Seabiscuit' begins at the end of the great depression. Three men will begin to rebuild their lives from the shattered shards that remain: John “Red” Pollard (Tobey Maguire) an insecure young jockey, molded from hard times and coiled more tightly than his riding crop; Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) is the “horse whisperer” with an almost supernatural ability to communicate with his charges; and Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) is a bankrupted entrepreneur who sees a thoroughbred in Red and will take him under his wing. Bringing all three together is a rather pathetic horse named Seabiscuit, who somehow inspires the men to attempt the impossible -- to take him all the way to the top. Along the way, the team's indefatigable spirit and ultimate triumph will rejuvenate the hope and optimism of a nation bruised and battered by the hardships of the Depression.
'Seabiscuit' is a love letter to the American Dream. It is corny, even maudlin, and many of its stylistic conceits -- the sun-drenched widescreen vistas, Ken Burns-like documentary narration and baroque score -- seem like something out of a '40s potboiler, hopelessly antiquated in this day and age of postmodern irony and hipness. But 'Seabiscuit' is the kind of film that doesn't just reject cynicism, it pummels it into the ground with all of the fury of a wild steed. It borders on fantasy, with an unwavering belief in the power of positive thinking -- nothing in this world is impossible, as long as you have enough idealism, gumption and dedication to will it into existence. If it leaves a slightly bittersweet aftertaste of treacle in its wake, well, even positivity doesn't come without a cost.
Forming the core of this decidedly boy's tale are Maguire, Bridges and Cooper. I have not been a particular fan of Maguire's blank-stare school of acting in the past, though admittedly here his stoic demeanor suits the insecurity of the character just fine, and he manages to express great nuance through subtle facial gestures and body language. Bridges and Cooper are typically terrific -- has either ever given a bad performance? -- and William H. Macy delivers another finely-etched supporting turn in a small role as announcer "Tick Tock" McGlaughlin.
Equally impressive are the film's production values. 'Seabiscuit' is a beauty to watch, the gorgeous photography by John Schwartzman the equivalent of gold-plated celluloid. Schwartzman makes sure every shot drips with nostalgia, yet the film has a palpable sense of reality that maintains our suspension of disbelief -- his work is truly sublime. Also thunderous is the film's excellent sound design, and its horse racing sequences are as viscerally thrilling as anything seen in a 'Star Wars' flick. And director Gary Ross (Pleasantville) brings all of the elements together with expert pacing -- 'Seabiscuit' is the rare movie that at 141-minutes, feels too short. Even if you hate horses, sports movies and Depression-era tales (like me), 'Seabiscuit' just may win you over.
'Seabiscuit' had looked quite lovely in its past video incarnations, both DVD and HD DVD. For this Blu-ray, Universal drinks from the same well, and that's a good thing. This is a lovely presentation that still ranks as one of the studio's best high-def catalog releases.
Again presented in 1080p/VC-1 video, 'Seabiscuit' looks exquisite. The source material is pristine, with perfect blacks and excellent contrast that is consistent across the entire grayscale. Color reproduction is also wonderful, and even more vibrant than the already-lush standard-def transfer. Director of photography John Schwartzman ladles on the golden highlights, which imbues the transfer with a richness unusual in a modern movie. Unlike today's tweaked-up transfers, 'Seabiscuit' looks realistic and natural, with some appropriate film grain visible (mostly in darker scenes). And it is most welcome.
The level of depth and detail is uniformly superb, even on tough scenes. There is a sequence early on where Chris Cooper watches Seabiscuit on a very foggy, overcast evening, but despite all the gloom the transfer never looked anything less than three-dimensional. Also gone are some of the minor moire patterns that hampered the standard-def release -- this time out, I couldn't detect any visible noise or compression artifacts. I'd like to find something to complain about here, but 'Seabiscuit' is close to flawless.
Universal has upgraded the audio for this Blu-ray to DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround (48kHz/24-bit). Finally, 'Seabiscuit' gets the high-res soundtrack it deserves.
The sound design of 'Seabiscuit' clearly favors the horse racing sequences, and they gallop ahead at full steed. Surround use is aggressive during these sequences, with expertly-crafted sound effects that never feel less than authentic. Crowd noise and stampeding hooves in the rears merge to create a very effective 360-degree soundfield that's superior to the previous HD DVD. Imaging now feels seamless. Low bass is also noticeably improved, with more impact to the subwoofer which sounds fantastic at loud volume. Quieter moments in 'Seabiscuit' do pale somewhat in comparison, but there is still nice atmosphere, and the sporadic bursts of Randy Newman's score are well-done and effective. Though I was already pleased with the Dolby Digital-Plus track included on the HD DVD, 'Seabiscuit' sounds even better here.
The same package of extras that graced the HD DVD and DVD versions of 'Seabiscuit' returns here. Universal has not upgraded the video to 1080, nor repurposed any of the materials for U-Control, etc. Still, this is a very nice selection of bonus features, so quality triumphs.
'Seabiscuit' is a real surprise for me. It is a film that I thought I would hate about a subject I could not care less about, yet I was almost immediately won over and enjoyed every minute of the film. This Blu-ray is mighty fine as well, with great video and upgraded DTS-MA audio, plus tons of supplements. Granted, we don't really get much new here over the previous HD DVD (aside from high-res audio), but if you don't already own 'Seabiscuit' on disc, this Blu-ray is as good a reason as you're going to get.