07/25/2003 12:00AM

A fairy tale on four legs

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NEW YORK - The fairy-tale story of a "colt from nowhere," Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling book, "Seabiscuit: An American Legend," must have been catnip to the movie industry. "All you need to make a movie is a gun and a girl," the director Jean-Luc Godard once said. To that, the people who made "Seabiscuit" would certainly add "and a horse."

And what a horse they have in Seabiscuit, "the little engine that could." Small, gangly, beat-up and beaten down, he is the loser as improbable winner, the Great Equine Hope - a Depression-era hero and a screen natural.

The director Gary Ross, who also adapted the book for the screen, has taken this embarrassment of riches and played it straight, making an earnest movie that does not shy away from sentimentalism. Many people, I think, will wring out their handkerchiefs, sigh, and pronounce "Seabiscuit" to be "just like they used to make them."

Ross has preserved most of the elements and much of the structure of the book. The movie begins by introducing the three main characters, who are straight out of central casting - the taciturn horse-whisperer of a trainer, the media-savvy millionaire owner, and the Shakespeare-quoting jockey who is blind in one eye.

Reading the book, I remember thinking that even Hollywood would blush to come up with such a crew (as if!). But Hillenbrand turned a neat trick: She took what could have been stock characters and, using a novelist's gift for story and a reporter's thoroughness, she created psychologically complex characters who inhabited a fascinating and sometimes harsh American landscape.

Ross has turned the opposite and less neat trick of turning them back into stock characters and rubbing some of the sharper edges off the world they live in. He faithfully shows Tijuana, a brothel, the self-induced vomiting of the jockey. In Hillenbrand these were the meat of the story; here they are window dressing.

Ross gets a boost from his actors, although he does not stretch them. Charles Howard, Seabiscuit's owner, is played by Jeff Bridges, one of the best screen actors around. Bridges is particularly adept at playing American dreamers and visionaries, and he is one of the few actors who can get away with a line like, "I know it's corny. But here's to the future." Though he no longer looks young, he retains a kind of boyish enthusiasm that is girded by seriousness and decency. In the movie, Howard is kind, benevolent, and thoughtful - a fairy-tale millionaire for the Depression.

Chris Cooper, who plays trainer Tom Smith, the name as plain as the man, has become a specialist in portraying the upright American man of action but few words. Though he is fine as Smith, the role seems a step backward for him after his anarchic performance in "Adaptation."

Perhaps the weakest link is Tobey Maguire as Red Pollard. Pollard was a small-town boy from Alberta, Canada, an autodidact who loved and quoted freely from Shakespeare and "Old Waldo" Emerson, but who survived in the rough-and-tumble (and sometimes deadly) world of bush-league tracks. It's a tricky combination of qualities that Maguire can't quite make credible. He is believable slumped in a corner of the barn reading a well-thumbed volume, but less so as the cursing, brawling kid trained in the school of hard knocks. And Ross has no use for Pollard's alcoholism, which is absent from the movie, but was the kind of detail Hillenbrand used to such good effect.

William H. Macy, as the radioman Tick-Tock McGlaughlin of Clocker's Corner, gives a hint of what the movie could have been. His fast-talking, cliche-spewing performance comes the closest to evoking the spirit of the Depression-era Warner Bros. movies: tough and not always on the up-and-up, unsentimental and populist. And after all, "Seabiscuit" is nothing if not a populist tale, with its ragtag crew of men looking for second chances and the underdog horse who provides them with one.

America in the Depression was a different country, one that stopped on Nov. 1, 1938, to listen to the "race of the century," the Pimlico match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral, the "perfect" horse who was the establishment East's favorite. This is a perfect, heart-thumping movie scenario, and Ross does not waste it.

Indeed, his film is by no means a failure. Though it suffers from a mawkish score by Randy Newman, the movie is well crafted and entertaining.

Fans of the game - and there may indeed be more of them because of "Seabiscuit" - will not be disappointed by the racing scenes, designed by Chris McCarron; they are full of speed, color, and excitement.

And Ross is onto something the old Westerns knew well: A horse in motion is a thing of beauty and a joy onscreen.