DVD Release Date:  January 25, 2011
Theatrical Release Date:  October 8, 2010
Rating:  PG (for brief mild language)
Genre:  Drama
Run Time:  116 min.
Director:  Randall Wallace
Cast:  Diane Lane, John Malkovich, Dylan Walsh, Margo Martindale, Scott Glenn, James Cromwell, Nelsan Ellis, Kevin Connolly 

Secretariat is a quintessential family film in this respect: there's nothing to complain about and nothing to rave about.  It's safe, conventional, professional; an old-fashioned movie made up of warm fuzzies.  In short, Secretariat is as inoffensive as it is ineffectual.

Given that live-action family fare is so rare at theaters, there's little pleasure in taking such a "wet blanket" stance on this one.  For the record, I'd recommend this to families without reservation or hesitation.  Just don't expect greatness, despite the pedigree (pun intended). 

Based on the famed racehorse from the early 1970s, Secretariat tells the story of the woman behind the steed—Penny Chenery Tweedy (Diane Lane).  A content stay-at-home mom, her life takes an unexpected turn when her father becomes ill in 1969.  What begins as two days of liquidating the assets of his Virginia farm evolves into a passion not simply for horse-racing but one special horse in particular—"the horse that nobody wanted."

That quote is just one of several ways the screenplay works to establish Secretariat as an underdog.  So, too, is its new owner Penny Tweedy.  She is a woman in a man's world at a time when that was a much bigger social obstacle than it is now.  Not to worry, though; she has enough gumption to make Sandra Bullock blush.  It's easy to imagine the pitch for this film: "It's Seabiscuit meets The Blind Side!"

Suffice it to say, Penny's spirit gives her plenty of chances to tell off old white guys.  Nothing will stop her; she'll barge into a Men's Only Country Club if she has to (and does)—stern, but always with the most gracious demeanor.  Her politely-scripted sass leaves no room for comebacks.

Likewise, the movie leaves little room for suspense, but contrary to what you might think the titular horse's legendary exploits aren't really to blame.  For a real-life story, the too-perfect-to-be-true screenplay follows every formulaic beat and cliché.  Even if you don't know the history, you know exactly where this is going. 

Moments of anxiety and struggle carry little weight because there's always an inspiring monologue to diffuse any doubt.  Even when all the facts and odds are stacked against them, who can argue with a beautiful speech about faith and belief, right?  Or a serious injury to the horse? Nothing a little bit of Penny's horse-whispering can't fix.

What keeps the predictable proceedings from being outright dull is a talented cast giving its best, along with a polished, nostalgic aesthetic.  Joining Diane Lane is John Malkovich as veteran trainer Lucien Laurin, a man not intimidated by odds or strong women.  Colorful in both personality and wardrobe, Malkovich makes him a fun eccentric.  Still, while he and Lane are clearly the counter-culture progressives, their edge is only played as cute.

The rest of the cast, limited by the script, simply fill stock roles.  Margo Martindale offers a supportive side of spunk to Penny's sass as the best friend Miss Ham, Nelsan Ellis is Secretariat's wise African-American caretaker Eddie Sweat, while Dylan Walsh, Dylan Baker and James Cromwell eventually get past their patriarchal hang-ups.  Even the reporters feel like they've been lifted from the '40s, not the '70s (an apt metaphor for the film itself).