HD DVD Title: Seabiscuit
Screen format: 1080p 2.35:1
First theatrical release:
Previously released on DVD/BluRay: Multiple DVD releases including Widescreen, Fullscreen and 2 disk collector’s editions on Dec. 13 2003
Director: Gary Ross
Starring: Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, Gary Stevens and William H. Macy
Sound Formats: English, Spanish, French Dolby Digital Plus 5.1
Length: 2 hours 21 minutes
Subtitles: English, Spanish, French
Seabiscuit adapts the real life story of the prizewinning racehorse of the same name, showcasing his rise out of obscurity into one of the most beloved ‘athletes’ of the depression era. More than that though, Seabiscuit is the story of flawed Americans who, through the miracle of this animal and their sheer determination and heart, were able to cope with their individual burdens and losses.
Car sales mogul Charles Howard (Bridges) like all Americans was hurt hard by the onset of the Great Depression. Howard’s spirit was such that he chose to defy the odds by keeping his business charging ahead until great personal tragedy struck and he lost his passion for the automobile. On a whim, Howard discovers the joys of thoroughbred horse racing, eventually hiring unlikely trainer (and out of work ex- cowboy) Tom Smith (Cooper), who discovers the raw talent embodied in Seabiscuit, a horse with great lineage but terrible training and an independent streak a mile wide. Through retraining and bonding with their too-tall jockey Red Pollard (Maguire), Seabiscuit becomes a phenomenon, and is embraced by the American public through careful showmanship and the bravado of the racing team behind him. Seabiscuit’s most famous race, and the core of this movie, is the $100,000 match race between him and Triple Crown winner War Admiral, the most perfect specimen of a horse ever seen, and a distant cousin of the biscuit. Seabiscuit unabashedly revels in the triumphs that these men and horse achieve, celebrating the simple joys of reaching their individual dreams together, and adapting to the roadblocks that life puts up in their way on that journey.
Sound Quality: 5/5
In a word, the soundtrack to Seabiscuit is phenomenal. Many movies shy away from utilizing completely enveloping surround tracks throughout the film, but there is hardly an instant in Seabiscuit when there isn’t either music, environmental effects, or the ‘you are there’ rush of crowds and horses surrounding you. The sound stage is wide, deep, and always surrounding you, from quiet reflective moments through the chaos of the track.
Bass levels are outstanding both in the effects and musical accompaniment, and the active surround channels are used to enhance the story and amaze the listener. Especially noteworthy are the thunderous clamor of horse hooves pounding out their circular route around the track. It is more intense than actually being at my local track and hearing the pack rush by, and yet very authentic sounding just the same, not boomy or artificial, but completely natural and stirring.
Also stirring is the musical score by composer Randy Newman who is miles and miles away from his more recognizable Pixar contributions, but no less effective. The themes utilized are extremely memorable and simply emotion packed. Overall, I have not heard a better all around mix of effects and music on any movie, on any format (home or theater!), than this one, and expect that this will be one of my primary sournces of demo material in the forseable future.
Visual Quality: 4.5/5
If stirring is the word I would choose to most closely define the audio end of Seabiscuit, then saturated would be the one chosen to describe the visuals. Seabiscuit overall features an extremely lush and vibrant color palette for the majority of the film, pausing only when necessary to tone things down into black and white territory when showing the deepest trough of the depression. As much of the action takes place in parks, racetracks and other outdoor locales, the widescreen presentation is often bursting with color, specifically deep green grass, a wild array of fall foliage, and the blazing rush of horses and jockeys mixed in with teeming crowds surrounding earthy courses. For color reproduction one would be hard pressed to find better source material than this film, and this HD transfer delivers every bit of that detail
Outside of the amazing color quality, Seabiscuit is moderately sharp with only a few notable scenes showing any muddiness, and never any edge enhancement or other artificial digital problems. The print is remarkably clean, with zero pops or scratches. Neither noise nor film grain were ever notable or distracting. This is a well crafted transfer of a film that had blockbuster production values yet aimed straight at the hearts of viewers.
Extra Features: 4.5/5
While the extras of Seabiscuit are merely replications of those found on the two disk special edition, they are truly among the cream of the crop. Starting off there is a feature length commentary with director Gary Ross whose absolute fanaticism for this story can not be underestimated (Film maker Steven Soderbergh is also featured on this track). Then there is the nearly hour long ‘Making of Seabiscuit’ which breaks down the movie into its many components and visits with key cast and crew to get their insights. ‘Anatomy of a movie moment’ allows Ross to share his vision for a key scene from story board to film, and it is here that we get to witness a gifted director breaking down the essence of his craft. ‘Racing through History’ illuminates viewers about the real life accomplishments of Seabiscuit and shows how accurately these were portrayed in the film. ‘Photo Finish’ explore’s Bridges personal fascination with wide format photography and could easily have been a big ego puff piece but comes across as genuine and heartfelt, and as a fellow amateur photographer I found it fascinating. Toping it all off we have two half hour long first looks, one each from HBO and AMC. If these had been solely created for this HD version or if some or all had been in full HD resolution this would have been an easy 5/5 for extras. As it is, I’m tempted to give it a full score but in the end I’ve got to ding the half a point for shovelware, but if EVERY disk had shovels of material of this quality we should be so lucky.
Overall: 4.5/5 (not an average)
In the end the movie itself comes off as an inspirational overload, a ‘Rocky’ for horse racing. Still, it’s a compelling overall effort, with an interesting and mostly true tale, fantastic audio and visual presentation, and some terrific acting from the principal cast.
Speaking of the cast, Seabiscuit also features two additional remarkable performances that I must mention. First is superstar jockey Gary Stevens as George Wolf, who is both a rival and friend to Pollard (and also the only other jockey Seabiscuit would allow). Stevens proves he is an adept actor and athlete and all through the film I kept saying to myself ‘this guy is pretty good, how come I never saw him before’ and only when reviewing the bonus material did I learn who he is. Veteran actor William H. Macy channels the great disk jockeys and track announcers throughout history as “Tick Tock” McGlaughlin, a carnie style race analyst and radio man, and he does so with a relish and zeal that is completely over the top and fun.
Finally, one other cast member who deserves credit is narrator David McCullough, who is known for his work on ‘The American Experience’. Utilizing a narrator can be a crutch, but in this movie it is crucial to tying the story to the state of the times in which it takes place. The narration is used for ‘telling’ important background information that would have taken entirely too long to show, in a movie that is already well over two hours long. McCullough brings gravity and class to the film, and deserves a great deal of credit for helping make this movie ‘work’.
As for the disk overall, this is a top notch production. While one could quibble with the story itself and give minor dings off for the fact that there’s nothing particularly new in the extras, it is hard to find fault here. The audio is remarkable throughout and the video saturation and colors are usable as demo material in many places (though for pure sharpness other films will have to suffice). Though they aren’t new, the included extras put many special editions to shame. This disk easily earns a ‘recommended’ and I hope that the many viewers who skipped it (like I did) on its first go round due to it being marketed in the heart of the summer blockbuster season will use this opportunity to give Seabiscuit another chance. It certainly deserves it.