MGM // 1986 // 88 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Bryan Pope (Retired) // April 23rd, 2004
"We don't know who these people are. They've already stolen a horse. They may have kidnapped Emmet Fallin. They could be anybody! Even hoodlums!" -- Harvey, the wicked stepfather
"Place your bets on a real winner when the heartwarming family classic, Lightning, The White Stallion, debuts on DVD from MGM Home Entertainment. Mickey Rooney is 'endearing' (Variety) in this touching tale of a championship horse and the two lonely souls who pin their hopes on his unwavering spirit." -- MGM Home Entertainment press release
After being kidnapped, a white stallion escapes his captor and is befriended by lonely Stephanie Ward (Isabel Lorca). When her combative stepfather refuses to pay for care of the horse, Stephanie turns to Madame Rene (Susan George), a local horse trainer and stable owner. Madame Rene agrees to take care of the horse and prepare Stephanie and Lightning for show-jumping competition in exchange for help around the stables. Complications arise when Lightning's real owner, multi-millionaire and compulsive gambler Barney Ingram (Mickey Rooney), needs his prize horse to pay off some debts. Will Barney take Lightning away? Will Lightning and Stephanie get to compete at nationals? Will Stephanie's stepfather loosen the screws?
Before I begin, I have to come clean about one thing: I don't much care for horses. I think they're generally skittish and ill-tempered animals. This is a fair and objective opinion that I'm sure has nothing to do with the fierce kick in the shin a horse gave me when I was little boy. Who knew horses don't like having their tails yanked?
While I steer clear of horses, I have always liked horse movies. A movie lets me fully appreciate a horse's statuesque beauty and grace without crippling me for a month.
Aside from the title character's physical beauty, there's little to like about Lightning, The White Stallion, a 1986 family film from MGM. This is a formulaic movie that gives formulaic movies a bad name. All the required elements are in place: plucky young heroine, free-spirited horse, obnoxious school chum-cum-love interest, unwavering parent, infinitely wise mentor, potentially life-altering disease, Mafia thugs, and an emotional finale where the heroine overcomes adversity in front of cheering masses. Whoa, Nelly! Did I say "Mafia thugs"? Indeed I did, but we'll get to that in a moment.
Lightning shoots for domestic drama by saddling its heroine with a stepfather who, like all cinematic stepparents, is overbearing and borderline abusive. The movie doesn't bother explaining why he's such a horse's butt, but that's okay, because he's the target of one of my favorite lines, courtesy of Stephanie's mother: "I know (being a father) is difficult for you, not having any children of your own, and Steph is not your child." So much for tact, and so much for graceful exposition.
Because an insensitive parent can provide only so much dramatic thrust, screenwriter Harry Alan Towers also sticks Stephanie with an eye disease. She will be blind within a year if she doesn't undergo expensive eye surgery. While this should be a major driving force in the narrative, it is instead treated with all the seriousness of a hangnail. Her disease is mentioned in a couple of perfunctory scenes (including one amusingly abrupt sequence where Stephanie's doctor drops the bomb before beating a hasty exit), and it doesn't even figure in the story's climax.
Adding insult to serious injury is an out-of-place subplot involving Barney and some money he owes to a band of woefully buffoonish thugs. These guys are so cartoonish in their villainy, one keeps expecting them to don little black moustaches and stovepipe hats and hog-tie Stephanie to a railroad track. By film's end, after the heavies have been outsmarted in a hilariously inept action climax, we're supposed to embrace Barney as a flawed but good-hearted old man, but all we can remember is him canoodling poolside with a much younger, bikini-clad, dime store-quality lady friend. Charming.
The biggest problem with Lightning is that it isn't even about Lightning. We know so little about the horse or its personality, the film might as well have been called Lightning, the Big Smelly Yak. Also, the film doesn't allow us to see a bond forming between Stephanie and the horse. For all we know, Stephanie sees him as her ticket out of the boonies, then it's off to the glue factory for our friend Lightning.
I could go on about William Levey's overwrought and erratic direction (the film includes come-and-go voiceover narration by Rooney, never-ending scenes of Lightning gallivanting through the wild, and overuse of slow-mo shots for dramatic emphasis), but I'm getting saddle sores.
Contrary to what MGM wants us to think, this attempt to cash in on our goodwill toward other, better equestrian-themed family films is hardly heartwarming. Insulting is more like it. I'm sorry, Lightning, but you're one lame show pony that should be put out to pasture.
Lightning is presented in 1.33:1 full frame, and its soundtrack is given the Dolby mono treatment. For extras, we get a trailer that makes Lightning look better than it actually is. Shabby treatment, but in this case I'm not going to make a fuss.
As Stephanie, Lorca has screen presence. Her line readings sound like, well, line readings, but the camera loves her. As her mentor, Madame Rene, George turns in a warm and gentle performance. She should have been given more screen time.
Also, the film's songs are something to behold, though probably not for the reasons the filmmakers intended.
The fact that you're still reading this review suggests that I haven't talked you out of a purchase. Please, I beg of you, think of the children. Hollywood has produced far better horse movies than this through the years...National Velvet...My Friend Flicka...The Black Stallion. Heck, even Bob(cat) Goldthwait's Hot to Trot is a notch above this. Do your kids a favor and spend your hard-earned money on one of those instead.
This movie is so guilty. The filmmakers are sentenced to 18 months of community service for cruelty toward animal movies.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Release Year: 1986
MPAA Rating: Rated PG