This weekend could end in a photo finish at the box office. "Secretariat," "Life as We Know It" and, in a holdover from last week, "The Social Network" will all compete for the top spot, and it's looking close at the moment. All three could rack up similar grosses — somewhere in the $15 million range — and experts are split on which film will be declared the winner.

If "Secretariat," Disney's retelling of the story of the greatest racehorse in history, can connect with families, the warm-hearted movie might well be trotting around the winner's circle Monday. Here's what the critics are saying:

The Story
"Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) has no idea she has a future winner on her hands when she inherits her late father's Virginia horse ranch. Leaving her husband (Dylan Walsh) in Denver while she tends to business, Penny clashes with her skeptical brother (Dylan Baker) as she plans on racing a horse bred from a strong sire but weaker broodmare. That chestnut-red horse, eventually named Secretariat, comes to mean something special to Penny and Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), the colorful but down-on-his-heels trainer chosen by Chenery to guide Secretariat to victory. After a disappointing event at the Aqueduct, the underdog equine takes charge and eventually winds up in the winner's circle at the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes in 1973, becoming the first Triple Crown winner in a quarter-century." — Joe Neumaier, New York Daily News

The Performances
"Lane tries very hard, saddled with not-great wigs and lines like, 'I will not live the rest of my life in regret.' She is simply not as comfortable in the role as Sandra Bullock was in 'The Blind Side,' another sports movie that courted the Christian audience with considerably more subtlety. ... John Malkovich lends comic relief (and a terrible French-Canadian accent) as Secretariat's eccentric trainer, Lucien Lauren, with fine support by Margo Martindale as Tweedy's supportive administrative assistant." — Lou Lumenick, New York Post

The Direction
"When Secretariat is running his races, the movie has a hokey, old-fashioned appeal. It uses a fantastic gospel anthem to stoke our feelings, the Edwin Hawkins Singers' 1969 rendition of 'Oh Happy Day.' ... The director, Randall Wallace ('We Were Soldiers') often seems to be aiming for the same Christian demographic that helped make a hit out of 'The Blind Side.' I personally have no objection to a horse film that views a creature as magnificent as Secretariat with religious awe, but in this case the uplift has a downside. The film is so insistently square it undercuts the very drama it's out to capture." — Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly

The Dissenters
"The tale of this glossy chestnut colt substitutes reverence for bona fide excitement. Diane Lane's voice-over narration quotes from the book of Job while a handsome steed bursts through billowing clouds as if on a divine mission. The true story of the recordbreaking Secretariat is pretty stupendous as is. It didn't need schmaltzing up. But director Randall Wallace ('The Man in the Iron Mask') chose to aggrandize everything surrounding the Triple Crown winner to worshipful proportions. The sentimentality ladled on thickly, however, undermines the impact of this underdog saga." — Claudia Puig, USA Today

The Final Word
"Hold your horses. The art of the great, superbly cast studio film is alive, even if corn remains a key ingredient. ... Yes, it is old-fashioned, often corny, preachy and altogether too emphatic. But this tribute to both two- and four-legged empowerment in the late 1960s and early 1970s and a genuinely legendary horse cannot fail to move you." — James Verniere, Boston Herald

Check out everything we've got on "Secretariat."

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