March to Disney: Secretariat and the Sports Films of Disney

This is a series of posts this month wherein I will focus on Disney films. For more on my background with Disney films and about the timing of this focus please read the introductory post here.

It’s almost as unoriginal to say all sports films are essentially the same as sports films are, at least on the surface. What tends to separate the better ones is that they are usually on a very specific incident or figure, and more commonly, what else the film has going for it.

For example, one of the more acclaimed documentaries in recent years is Undefeated. It’s about a high school football team. What made it critically acclaimed and an Oscar winner was not the football aspect, but rather, and high school sports can do this better than most, the off-the-field life lessons involved. So there, even in documentary form, it’s about “What else do you have going for you?”

Disney, in both shorts and feature films, has a long history of dealing with sports as the focus of a film. The earliest, most notable forays, were the Goofy shorts wherein he’d engage in a number of sports with his usual haphazard results. The shorts, aside from being funny, are fairly good caricatures of the sports in question. Meaning it’s more about impression than accuracy of rendition and also about placing a character in a context so whether skiing, basketball, boxing, football (American), ice hockey, aquatic sports, or any other they served as short hilarious sketches and/or introductions to the sport.

The short form animated sports film has its own template of exaggeration, while the feature film usually deals in underdog stories. Which is what usually brings me back to Secretariat. Now, what the real world themes that are being brought to the fore are rather obvious. Due to the the setting and plot the film is a feminist comment. Ms. Tweedy, played marvelously by Diane Lane, is smart, tough, a risk-taker and ultimately successful. She’s the underdog of the tale, whereas the horse, who even if you only know a slight bit about horse racing, you know is the overdog. He, like many a thoroughbred, shot out of the blue into national consciousness, but is unquestionably the most dominant horse the sport has ever known.

Secretariat (2010, Disney)

Aside from the feminism, which the film plays through both mother and activist daughter, there is also the gently folded in family element. You see her sacrifice and work on two fronts due to what she feels is her responsibility to her father, the farm and the horse, and as much as she can she travels back across country to be with her husband and four kids.

That’d be more than enough, but Secretariat, being a film about horse racing, also plants the seeds of doubt about health of the horse, and addresses the concern of those ambivalent to negative on the nature of the sport. Needless to say there’s likely poetic license taken all over the place, it’s a film after all, but the impressive thing is that the film works on many fronts and levels, which is why it was one of my top films of 2010, and didn’t diminish upon re-view.

Now, as much as I do like other Disney sports films of a more traditional nature, like The Mighty Ducks, which I saw at a sneak preview with a friend and it got us so pumped that we laced up our rollerblades and had a near midnight practice session, or Cool Runnings. They do fall into the more typical mold. Secretariat stretches it on a few fronts. Now there is a recent rash of other Disney sports films that I am behind on, however, based on what I know of them Secretariat still upped the ante a great deal. Usually, there’s a theme or two tackled and few possible end games.

In a purely sporting sense, Secretariat paints a portrait that even a blowout can be a thing of beauty due to the prowess of the athlete and the dramatic stakes placed upon the race. Whereas in other films there’s one “brass ring,” here our protagonist has staked her livelihood on the fact that the horse will win the Triple Crown, something that hadn’t happened in 25 years at the time, and has only happened once since.

Now, all this is not to say Disney’s record is flawless in the genre, there’s far too many Most Valuable Primate and Air Bud films for that to be the case, but in the past decade or so, even with as many as I’m missing, on the dramatic end of the spectrum; they have found stories in the subgenre that can push the envelope ever so slightly in this kind of film.

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