I walked in to Racing Stripes expecting another tedious family entertainment failure, though there was a time when pictures like these could be pulled off. For instance, Disney’s library is littered with palatable family fun flicks, based on ludicrous, potentially painful premises. But the golden age of family entertainment has long since passed on to strictly computer animation. These days even slapping Walt’s label on a movie idea this fraught with bad taste peril generally leads to exactly what you’d expect--disaster. To my surprise, Warner Brothers’Racing Stripes is not a disaster. It isn’t quite Babe, but it does faintly harken back to the good old days of Herbie movies and Fred MacMurray. For movie going parents, that’s a step in the right direction.
Racing Stripes co-stars poor, ignored Bruce Greenwood doing his very best John Schneider impression as ex-race horse trainer Nolan Walsh. Walsh retired from the racing business after his wife was killed in a tragic riding accident. Years later, in the midst of a massive storm, he finds a baby zebra left behind when the local circus broke camp. Nolan brings the baby home to his daughter Channing (Hayden Panettiere) and together the pair nurture and raise the not-so-creatively dubbed “Stripes” on their outdated farm, a place which has a strange tendency to resemble the home of Ma and Pa Kent. Though the movie takes place in what I can only assume is modern day, all of Nolan Walsh’s farm equipment seems to have been time warped straight in from 1952.
Whenever Nolan and Channing aren’t around, the animals stop playing dumb and get chattering. It’s amazing how seamless, from a technical perspective, this special effect has become. Animals moving their lips realistically to form human words is certainly a welcome improvement over the days of rubbing peanut butter on Mr. Ed’s gums. The farm is littered with a cast of quirky, talking, creature characters in addition to the Frankie Muniz voiced zebra. Most notably present is a miniature pony named Tucker (Dustin Hoffman, voice), a goat named Franny (Whoopi Goldberg, voice), and a stool pigeon pelican named Goose (Joe Pantoliano, voice).
Unaware that he’s not a horse, Stripes grows up wanting to be a racer. He envies the thoroughbreds their speed, and practices daily to be their equal. Trained by Tucker, the stubby legged youngster gets fast. But to race, he must convince Channing to ride him. To ride him, Channing must break her father’s fear-generated rules about horses.
Of course, it’s absolutely ridiculous for a zebra to compete with regular steeds. Stripes doesn’t look very believable going one on one against equines twice his size. But then good old Herbie didn’t match up all that well against Formula 51 racers either, yet the folks at Disney somehow got their audience invested in him anyway. I’m not sure how it happened, but that’s what Warner Brothers manages here, though my brain keeps insisting the things happening on screen are flat out foolish. Weak fart jokes abound as do unnecessary rap breaks involving CGI horseflies. But crudely mannered flies are just forced kiddie pandering buzzing around the edges of what is actually a weirdly ambitious movie.
Director Frederik Du Chau goes further than you’d expect in a film like this, attempting several really big sequences involving things like moonlit horse races. Hundreds of horses group riderless on the screen together, pawing at the ground in the dark, an animal version of the street racing scenes from The Fast and the Furious. While the scene obviously suffers a little slickness due to limited budget, it is audacious to even attempt something so big in such a throwaway--probably could have gone straight to video--kids movie. That kind of attitude is what helped make those family movies of the past such a success, and Du Chau has it on full display here.
Racing Stripes’ stock story about someone different trying to accomplish something extraordinary, overlaid with a pretty standard father/daughter conflict, could have come off as bland, flat, and cheap as it sounds. The script is certainly no winner. But Du Chau manages to breathe a little bit of life into this potentially mind-numbing affair. Nolan and Channing’s story is somewhat touching and Dustin Hoffman’s fantastic voiceover work as a gruff, wise, little pony helps carry the animal cast past the point of annoying into the realm of endearing. Racing Stripes is by no means some sort of revelation in children’s entertainment nor does it compare favorably with the better family fare already out there today. Still, this is a lame, children’s message movie that’s a lot more tolerable than it ought to be. For the rapidly sinking world of live action PG entertainment, that’s quite an accomplishment. For anyone somehow roped into seeing it, it’s a bewildering relief.