Racing Stripes (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Although perhaps a little unkind, the best description I can think of for Racing Stripes is that it's a "Babe wannabe." The new film has many of the same qualities, but it isn't as fresh, as witty, or as affecting as the 1995 movie or its 1998 sequel. The concept of making animals talk is always tricky, and, for the most part, director Frederik Du Chau (in his live-action debut after helming the animated Quest for Camelot) pulls it off. The animals' mouths move in a believable fashion, and the vocal cast is first-rate. The fault lies in the script (credited to newcomer David Schmidt), which doesn't believe that the animals have much worth saying to adult audience members.

I have always gone to great pains to differentiate between "family films" and "children's films." Those in the former category can be enjoyed by all members of the family, regardless of age. Those in the latter category are designed primarily to entertain youngsters. Babe is a family film. Racing Stripes is a children's film. To be more specific, the target audience is pre-teen females. I can't see many boys being thrilled about a story that involves a zebra who thinks he's a race horse and the girl who rides him.

Channing Walsh (Hayden Panettiere) is a 16-year old Kentucky girl who dreams of riding her pet zebra, Stripes (voice of Frankie Muniz), on a local racetrack. But there are two roadblocks. Her overprotective father, Nolan (Bruce Greenwood), is afraid for her safety. (Her mother died in a horseracing accident.) And Stripes, despite being fast, seems overmatched against the thoroughbreds. Eventually, Nolan relents and agrees to train Stripes so his daughter can ride. Meanwhile, the zebra gets help from a host of other farm animals, including a Shetland Pony named Tucker (voice of Dustin Hoffman), a gabby goat (voice of Whoopi Goldberg), a hit-pelican named Goose (voice of Joe Pantoliano), and a pair of comic flies (voices of Steve Harvey and David Spade). Along the way, Stripes picks up a love interest, Sandy (voice of Mandy Moore), and a rival, Trenton's Pride (voice of Joshua Jackson). There's also a nefarious stallion, Sir Trenton (voice of Fred Dalton Thompson), who uses underhanded means to sabotage Stripes' chances. In the end, as expected, everything is resolved in a race.

One of the drawbacks of the film is that much of the comedy is sophomoric, with its primary appeal designated for younger viewers. Adults will still find things to laugh at (Goose's attack on a motorbike and some of the antics of the flies), but the majority of the humor is broad, and not all that clever. Then there's the melodrama quotient, which is high. It works better with the humans than with the animals, but there's plenty to go around. In the end, both Channing and Stripes have something to prove when it comes to the Big Race.

The film offers nothing but positive messages. The most prominent one is, of course, that obstacles can be overcome and dreams can be followed. Despite being a zebra, Stripes wants to race. He gets the chance. And Channing has to convince her father that just because he lost his wife on the track, he won't lose her. Racing Stripes also uses Stripes' "different-ness" as an opportunity to address bigotry, albeit in an allegorical fashion. (This is another thing that Babe does.)

The human stars do the best they can with the material. For veteran Bruce Greenwood (a respected character actor who most recently appeared as the villain in I, Robot) and child actor Hayden Panettiere (Raising Helen, Remember the Titans), it's a thankless job. They are constantly upstaged by the animals. As the villainous Clara Dalrymple, Wendy Malick gets more notice, but only because she's over-the-top. A lot of well-known performers lend their voices, including Dustin Hoffman, Michael Clarke Duncan, Jeff Foxworthy, Joe Pantoliano, and Snoop Dogg. Kids will recognize Frankie Muniz, Mandy Moore, and Joshua Jackson. With those voices and the inherent cuteness factors associated with most four-legged beasts, the humans don't get much notice.

It would be wrong for me to argue that Racing Stripes is a bad movie, because it isn't. Nor is it a chore for adults to watch (at least most of the time). It's just not a good all-around source of family entertainment. Perhaps the best way to approach this good-intentioned flick is to think along the lines of Babe, then lower your expectations a notch. You may end up being pleasantly surprised, especially if you have a ten-year old girl in tow.

Racing Stripes (United States, 2005)

Run Time: 1:24
U.S. Release Date: 2005-01-14
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Nothing Objectionable)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1