Dir: Gary Ross. US 2003. 140 minutes

A good film that could have been a great one, Seabiscuit offers a welcome alternative to this summer's bloated action sequels. Based on the best-selling non-fiction book by Laura Hillenbrand, the film recounts the true, Depression-era story of an unprepossessing, knobby-kneed horse who not only became a racing legend but also a symbol of hope and inspiration in a nation badly needing both. While the film may lack the dazzle and excitement some viewers seek, it is filled with honest emotion and palpable tension. Certainly the human story that lies at its centre knows no geographic boundaries. Opening numbers won't be anywhere near an X-Men 2 or Terminator 3 but good word-of-mouth should guarantee steady business for weeks to come. Audiences likely will be more responsive than critics, many of whom will give the film a mixed reception The film opens in the US on Friday.

Like author Hillebrand, screenwriter/director Ross (Big, Dave, Pleasantville) is as interested in the human story as in the sports drama and he spends the film's first 45-minutes introducing the two-legged members of his cast: Seabiscuit's owner Charles Howard (Bridges), his trainer Tom Smith (Cooper) and jockey Johnny "Red" Pollard (Maguire). Intercutting among the three, Ross produces a kind of extended prologue in which life-altering episodes in the characters' lives are revealed, providing crucial psychological insight into each man. While the constant jumping back and forth is handled smoothly and never appears choppy, this section can't quite escape the feeling that it's serving a purpose, rather than that it's something organic and natural.

The film doesn't start to really come together emotionally until about the 45-minute mark when: 1) the three men hook up, and 2) the title character is introduced. Each of the principals - whether human or equine- are broken individuals who have suffered great hardship, even tragedy, in their lives and are in need of healing. Howard's son dies at a young age; when still a boy, Red is abandoned by his parents; Tom's world collided with the 20th Century; while Seabiscuit has been knocked-around and mistreated most of his life. It is only when these four come together through a fortuitous chain of circumstances that each of them becomes whole. That is the miracle of this true-life story, as well as the emotional heart of the film.

Ross is one of the few Hollywood directors who has managed to be a crowd-pleaser without completely selling his soul but Seabiscuit still suffers from the kind of too-perfect veneer and homogenous blandness that invariably seeps into Hollywood, mass-appeal movies. Shots of Howard's beautiful, wood-panelled house, with shafts of sunlight piercing the interior-designed gentility, looks lovely but it also looks and feels production designed. So do the early scenes of young Red's family, before the boy is abandoned.

The film almost doesn't make it out of the starting gate with its decision to open on old black-and-white photos of America during the Great Depression, accompanied by narration from Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough, who returns periodically to offer more history lessons. While opening the film in this manner is acceptable and does provide an historical context for viewers, the continued use of voice-overs and old photographs is unnecessary, especially as McCullough draws obvious parallels between what is going on in the country and what the film's characters are experiencing on a personal level. At one point in the film Howard reveals tenderness and concern for Red, treating him almost as a son. Up pop black-and-white photos of Americans benefiting from New Deal opportunities as McCullough describes the effect that President Franklin Roosevelt's policies had on the American people: "For the first time in a long time, someone cared." It's like painting arrows on the screen. Likewise, Thomas Newman's score is not always as subtle as it could have been.

Luckily, the film has enough real heart and honest emotion to survive such imperfections and Ross manages to generate a great deal of tension. One particularly nerve-racking scene finds Red and "the Biscuit" racing around the track in the middle of the night, without any lights. Nothing bad happens but the fact that Red is scared makes the viewer all that much more apprehensive.

As for the actors, Maguire is particularly good as the emotionally wounded jockey. Macy is a hoot as radio sports commentator "Tick-Tock" McGlaughlin, while Elizabeth Banks as Howard's second wife and real-life jockey Gary Stevens as real-life 1930's jockey George Woolf provide effective back-up, even if Banks is pretty much relegated to the traditional role of wife.

Although failing to join the ranks of the truly great, as Seabiscuit the horse did, Seabiscuit the movie proves an engaging and emotionally satisfying film overall. Certainly, it benefits from the fact that it is true. It's the best kind of tale, one in which the human (and animal) spirit triumphs, a rag-to-riches story in which the pay-off isn't financial, it's emotional - and all the more rewarding for being so.

Prod co: A Universal Pictures/Dreamworks Pictures/Spyglass Entertainment presentation of a Larger Than Life, Kennedy/Marshall production
US Dist. Universal Pictures
Intl dist: BVI/UIP/local partners
Prods: Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall, Gary Ross, Jane Sindell
Exec prods: Gary Barber, Roger Birnbaum, Tobey Maguire, Allison Thomas, Robin Bissell
Scr: Gary Ross, based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand
Cinematographer: John Schwartzman
Prod des: Jeannine Oppewall
Ed: William Goldenberg
Music: Thomas Newman
Main cast: Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Banks and William H. Macy