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Diane Lane is all sweet smiles in this scene from Secretariat. (Handout)
Diane Lane is all sweet smiles in this scene from Secretariat. (Handout)

Liam Lacey: Behind the Screens

What Disney thinks a horse can teach us about family values Add to ...

Secretariat was possibly the greatest racehorse of all time but what kind of animal is Secretariat the movie? Inspirational? Family fun? Sports tale?

"It's a movie that speaks to who we are today and where we are going," Disney studio chief Rich Ross says.

Ah. That means Secretariat is a "family values" movie, with a famous horse attached. Disney has a marketing outreach plan to the faith-based audience (the movie quotes from the Book of Job and uses the spiritual O Happy Day) and a heartland-friendly message combining entrepreneurial perseverance with family strength. Any comparisons to a recent true-life sports movie which earned Sandra Bullock an Oscar (and Warner Bros. $256-million U.S.) are welcomed. Think of Secretariat as The Blinders Side.

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Ross is also talking about how a movie like Secretariat defines Disney's mandate in 2010, as a company that is attempting to refocus on the traditional wholesome image of its brand. A year ago in September, Disney fired its long-time studio chief Dick Cook and replaced him with Ross, who managed the company's hugely successful global kids' TV business, and such squeaky (and squeaky clean) hits as Hannah Montana and the High School Musical franchise. The company shed or reduced its adult divisions, Miramax and Touchstone, and will now specialize in three areas: Family films, animation (Pixar) and superhero stories from the recently acquired Marvel Entertainment.

According to the studio's new production head, Sean Bailey, quoted in the Los Angeles Times, Disney's family films will focus on four categories: family-friendly comedies with heart; epics that create worlds ( Alice in Wonderland, Pirates of the Caribbean and Disney's coming Tron: Legacy); the occasional movie aimed at a specific youth demographic (teenaged girls for the coming movie Prom); and inspirational true-life stories such as Secretariat.

Secretariat has an all-inspirational pedigree. The director, Randall Wallace, wrote Braveheart. Writer Mike Rich was responsible for The Rookie and Finding Forrester, and producers Mark Ciardi and Gordon Gray produced the inspirational sports movies Miracle and Invincible. The story focuses not on the overwhelmingly talented horse, but the horse's owner, Penny Chenery, a Denver mother of four who took over her father's Virginia horse and achieved racing history while holding her family together. The real-life Chenery's subsequent divorce, which doesn't fit the narrative, isn't part of the movie.

Does Disney know what it's doing? According to various accounts (Variety, The New York Times, The Hollywood Reporter), reaction has been divided on Ross's first year on the job. Disney has had the top three films of the year ( Toy Story 3, Alice in Wonderland and Iron Man 2, grossing a record-setting $2.7-billion) but the successes were all handed down from the previous regime. Other films ( The Sorcerer's Apprentice, Prince of Persia) haven't fared so well.

Apart from axing several projects (not the Wild Hogs sequel!), the most intriguing thing Ross has done is enlist several A-list, and often darkly disturbing, directors to work on family-oriented films. They include David Fincher for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Sam Raimi for a Wizard of Oz prequel and Guillermo del Toro to remake The Haunted Mansion. The plan may manage to reconcile traditional children's stories with contemporary kids' demands for extreme entertainment.

This might be more promising if Disney were a little less strait-laced in its choice of material. Consider the greatest Canadian racehorse, Northern Dancer, a classic underdog (small, unsellable as a yearling) who won the 1964 Kentucky Derby in a record time (broken by Secretariat) as well as the Preakness. But where Northern Dancer really outclassed the competition was not on the track, but in the hay. After his racing career, he became the most influential sire of the 20th century, with a million-dollar stud fee (the same amount Demi Moore earned in Indecent Proposal). Until Disney goes really out on a limb and hires Paul Thomas Anderson to make Boogie Equine Nights, this is one great horse movie that will never leave the starting gate.

COMING NEXT WEEK

Conviction Hilary Swank returns to her specialty - working-class underdogs ( Boys Don't Cry, Million Dollar Baby) - in a reality-based story of a woman who spent 18 years getting a legal education to overturn a murder charge against her brother (Sam Rockwell).

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest The third in the series of Swedish films based on the late Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy, gives us the home-grown take on the thriller series. David Fincher has already begun shooting the English-language remake of the first book in the series, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Red Bruce Willis stars in this action-comedy as a retired CIA agent who is forced to go on the run with a civilian (Mary-Louise Parker) and enlists fellow retirees (John Malkovich, Morgan Freeman and Helen Mirren) to help him. The primary draw here appears to be the prospect of Mirren ( The Queen) blasting away with an automatic rifle.

Tamara Drewe Stephen Frears's comedy is based on a graphic novel based on a newspaper cartoon by Posy Simmonds, in turn inspired by Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd. Gemma Arterton, a sexy newspaper columnist (in denim shorts and a red top) arrives at a village writers' colony and drives the men crazy.

I Spit on Your Grave A remake of the infamous late-seventies rape-revenge-fantasy film arrives well in advance of Halloween, though probably too late to match the original's shock value.

Jackass 3D Johnny Knoxville, Steve-O and the rest of the boys who hurt and expose themselves for your amusement can poke your eye out as well, thanks to the addition of an extra dimension.

Hereafter As Shakespeare sort of said, "Age cannot wither him nor custom stain his infinite variety." Eighty-year-old macho icon Clint Eastwood, working from a script by Peter Morgan ( The Queen), goes unexpectedly New Age-y in a three-part story about near-death experiences, with Matt Damon and Cécile de France. ( Hereafter opens in Toronto on Oct. 15 and then wide on Oct. 22.)

 

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