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Seabiscuit

Mild horses

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Unabashedly, writer/director Gary Ross opens Seabiscuitas though it's some edifying PBS documentary. Vintage black-and-white photos of people in hats? Check. Avuncular voiceover (by PBS-fave historian David McCullough), accented with valedictory brass? Check, check. The film's barely out of the starting gate before you're wondering whether Ken Burns should phone his lawyer.

But so it goes with this story of the famed Depression-era racehorse. Based on the nonfiction best-seller by Laura Hillenbrand, it's an artless, innocuous crowd-pleaser with no fewer than four good-hearted, scrappy heroes, one semi-villain and a climactic race suitable for a Hollywood ending.

The first of Ross' heroes is Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), an optimistic, quintessentially American type who goes West and makes a fortune selling newfangled horseless carriages (cue zoom on antique photo of Ford assembly line). Stung by the stock-market crash, Howard bottoms out with his young son's accidental death and a subsequent divorce. Fate and good will team him with newly hobofied horse-trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), failed prizefighter and down-on-his-luck jockey Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), and Seabiscuit himself -- a stubborn, undersized animal whose previous owners trained him to lose in order to build the confidence of more promising thoroughbreds.

Seabiscuit is handsomely photographed, with plenty of chances to enjoy watching really fast animals in slow motion. And Ross likably showcases his likable lead actors, from congenially fleshy Bridges and laconic Cooper to soulful Maguire and, in a flashy supporting role, William H. Macy as a radio sportscaster.

But while Ross wants to teach some history, his take on the Depression is less John Steinbeck than Frank Capra: With a script that could have been stitched on a sampler, Ross (Dave, Pleasantville) chronicles an underhorse who won't give up even when life beats him down, and whose inspiring example appears to have led the country out of joblessness and despair. This is America, after all, where by dint of sheer pluck one rich guy's horse can outrun a slightly richer guy's horse. And don't miss the epilogue, when Seabiscuit wins World War II.

Flashes of unbridled life occasionally nose forward, as in the nasty way jockeys at the lower professional levels pummel each other for an advantage mid-race. But the temperamental, Shakespeare-quoting Pollard's apparently complex psyche is sketched in only the most superficial strokes, while Howard and Smith don't merit even that much exploration. Mostly, Ross guides us through the tale like a solicitous kindergarten teacher. Just so we don't miss any lessons, even the film's climactic showdown with Triple Crown winner War Admiral (and his pompous, plutocratic owner) is voice-overed.

So is another key moment, Smith's first sight of Seabiscuit. The horse emerges in silhouette from the mist, and the old trainer just knows this is the one. With a reliable actor like Cooper, you'd think that setup would be enough. But not only does Ross have the reassuring voice of McCullough telegraph this moment -- he has him narrate the whole darn scene, as though we couldn't appreciate a man suddenly sensing his destiny.

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