Disney mastered the art of the sports underdog movie long ago, but now they’re just showing off. After crafting hits like Remember the Titans, The Rookie, and Miracle, in which real-life longshots overcome incredible obstacles and long odds to achieve athletic glory, Disney figured they really don’t even need the underdog. I give you Secretariat, which opens tomorrow on about 2,500 screens. It’s generally acknowledged that the strapping red colt was the most dominant Triple Crown winner ever, galloping into history with a Pegasus-like performance at the 1973 Belmont Stakes. At the Belmont, Secretariat was a 1-10 favorite to win the race. The year before, he was voted the national horse of the year as a promising two-year-old. Secretariat wasn’t a four-legged Rudy; he was the 1927 Yankees.
No matter. Screenwriter Mike Rich (The Rookie) sticks to the Disney playbook, emphasizing the underdog status of Secretariat’s owner Penny Chenery, played with just the right amount of Southern steel by Diane Lane. She is the outsider, the woman fighting her way through a man’s world while trying to keep her farm and her family together. And it works. Even though I knew the history of Secretariat, I still felt the tingle in the hairs on the back of my neck as he ran away from his competition at Belmont, purely because I was invested in Penny’s struggle. I didn’t even mind that that struggle relied on a liberal interpretation of the actual facts.
This cinematic success opens the door for entirely new subgenre of Disney sports film. They no longer have to rely on undersized, overmatched heroes who slay the heavily-favored Goliath. For example, and I’m just spitballing: the 1992 U.S. Olympic basketball team. Sure, the Dream Team had Jordan and Barkley and Bird and Magic, and won the gold medal with ease. But what if — what if — the American team suffered food poisoning from some bad Catalan cuisine the night before the gold medal game, and their subsequent illnesses nearly prevented them from covering the 30-point spread against Croatia? Will bench-warmer Christian Laettner hit those two last-minute foul shots to assure gamblers of an American victory? That is cinematic suspense.
Do you think there’s a future in films where the guys who are supposed to win actually win? Can you envision a movie about the foot fungus that nearly derailed the 2010 Duke Blue Devils from winning the college basketball title against those pesky Butler Bulldogs? Or the swimmer’s ear that nearly cost Michael Phelps one of his 14 gold medals?
EW’s Secretariat review