Are You a Christian? Disney Has a Horse Movie to Sell You
Having not been invited to check Secretariat out, I can only take its Oscar allies at their word that the film is a high point in the horse-racing genre and as viable an awards-season contender as any this year. That doesn't mean its makers are above pandering condescension.
A report today in THR elaborates on Disney's strategy for pushing Secretariat among the "faith-based" audience that helped make The Blind Side an Oscar-winning $250 million smash last year. It's no coincidence that both films feature an affluent white woman who, against all odds, social order and her own better judgment, crafts a winning athlete -- a winning specimen, really -- from underprivileged raw material. Not that there's anything fundamentally wrong with either football mom Leigh Anne Tuohy or horse breeder Penny Chenery's stories -- anything but. It's just that the implications for their other subjects are more than a little troublesome. "My meeting with the marketing team to EXPLAIN the problem would start thusly," tweeted NPR's Monkey See blog. "Secretariat ... was ... a ... HORSE." The mind reels, the skin crawls, etc.
Disney may or may not have anticipated this (reps aren't talking). But writer-director Randall Wallace most certainly did, deflecting the matter with both demographic brio ("I have high hopes people with middle-American values will enjoy it, and we know from screenings it resonates with progressives who like Penny's independence and strength") and easy-to-Netflix qualifications ("We celebrated the same values in Braveheart and We Were Soldiers, but those movies had an element of loss in them. With this movie, the audience is cheering like it's a rock concert").
Fine. But here's the thing: Beyond Sandra Bullock's admittedly terrific performance, The Blind Side generally sucked. Its success was not a reflection of its quality but rather its word-of-mouth, especially as those "people with middle-American values" got a look and realized they could get behind that sassy, brassy, God-fearing Memphis socialite who implored them to change someone's life for the better. To the extent it inspired, it galvanized viewers to within a pearl-clutching inch of their lives.
Secretariat, on the other hand, does not have the leeway to suck. It's being bred (no pun intended) as an Oscar contender from the start -- which historically doesn't require aesthetic greatness or anything, but does require either critical staying power or some hypnotic individual presence to recommend it. Does this film have that? Seriously, I'm asking. I haven't seen it. (I'd love to check it out; producers Gordon Gray and Mark Ciardi got a lifetime exemption from me after 2004's classic Miracle -- the godawful Game Plan notwithstanding.)
Still, all I care about for now is the campaign, and if we stick strictly to that, we see how patronizing is not the same thing as galvanizing. Pronounced ideological threads (Chenery's husband decries their daughter's "Commie" social interests; inheritance-tax squabbles that "could derail the protagonist's heroic efforts") are not the same as activist humanism. A horse breeder is not an adoptive mother. And -- must I really say it? -- a horse is not a person. He's a winner, he's a legend, he's an inspiration. But he's a horse. Let the audience and the Academy each reward you accordingly, however they see fit. Until then, Disney, let's keep them separate. It's really too early in the season to start resenting each other.