Appellate Judge James A. Stewart got through this review without saying, "Meanwhile, back at the ranch..."
"That animal doesn't belong to you—or anybody else!"
Of course that animal belonged to Roddy McDowell (Planet of the Apes), who played Ken McLaughlin, the youth who learns responsibility by caring for a horse in 1943's My Friend Flicka. The original movie, based on the novel by Mary O'Hara, was followed by two sequels and a 1950s TV series.
In Flicka, the 2006 update, Ken's gone. Instead, the movie follows teenager Katy McLaughlin (Alison Lohman, Matchstick Men). As it opens, she's dreaming about horses when she should be writing her final essay at the private school she attends. When the exam period's over, she's got a blank page—and will have trouble at home when her parents find out.
The fax hasn't come from the school yet, so parents Rob (Tim McGraw, Friday Night Lights) and Nell (Maria Bello, Thank You for Smoking) welcome her back. Katy's still restless, though. At night, she sneaks out to go horseback riding through the mountainous Wyoming countryside (there's some filming in Wyoming, but much of it is done in Malibu). One night, she has a close call with a mountain lion, which is scared away by a wild mustang.
Katy wants to adopt the mustang to protect it from the mountain lion, but her father considers wild horses "parasites." Undaunted, she goes out to bring the mustang in herself, causing a ruckus that nearly sends Rob's herd scattering into the wild. She names the horse Flicka, and starts the lengthy process of taming and training the mustang—at night, in secret. When Rob figures it out, he decides to sell the mustang to the rodeo to protect his daughter.
Brother Howard (Ryan Kwanten, Summerland) has his own problems, since he wants to go off to college, but Rob wants him to stay and help run the ranch.
Will Katy be able to ride Flicka in the wild horse race to raise the money to buy the mustang back? Will Howard go away to college? Will Rob learn to trust his daughter?
The story is updated to give audiences a glimpse of life on a modern ranch—showing us the way Rob mulls over the possibility of selling out to make room for condominiums when business isn't going so well, for example. These elements are a rather small part of the movie, even though Tim McGraw makes them resonate with his line readings and expressions. He and Maria Bello are convincing and likeable as the loving parents and spouses who don't see eye-to-eye. One scene, in which Rob charges into the house, followed by an equally angry Katy, with Nell commenting simply, "I don't even wanna know," plays pitch-perfect.
Their offspring are on hand to provide standard-issue teen angst, even though the actors are both around 30. For someone brave enough to tame a wild mustang, Alison Lohman's Katy is too heavy on the histrionics; her tears when Flicka is taken away to the rodeo were just annoying. I also never quite got the "special connection" she had with Flicka, since she's repeatedly getting thrown from the horse. Her brother Howard, who's "moving into my zen phase," delivers lines with an intended wisdom that isn't supported by actual lines like, "I feel like a cartoon. My feet are running, but I'm just not moving."
The best thing going for Flicka is the scenery. Day or night, those beautiful mountains make a good backdrop for horses on the move, with or without riders. You get some of the scenery in the music video-like sequences of this movie, and you'll probably wish they'd whacked out more pages of script to get more of it in. I did.
The picture, of course, is beautiful, although the sun's glare in a few outdoor scenes can be too bright on occasion. At one point, the horses' movements are sped up with an artistic flair. The country-folk soundtrack has a lot of flavors, including hints of Gershwin, that are handled well by this DVD.
Director Michael Mayer starts off his commentary by letting us know he hums along with the 20th Century Fox logo when he sees it in theaters. After that tangent, he does let us know a lot about how he put together the film, including letting us in on a CGI scene I didn't recognize as such on first viewing. The extras also include a clip of Tim McGraw in concert singing "My Little Girl," and three scenes deleted to improve the movie's flow.
If you're actually on a ranch and there's a chance your kids might try taming a wild mustang, you'd probably better keep them away from Flicka. Otherwise, the movie's mostly harmless: Howard kisses his girlfriend, Katy falls off horses a lot, and there's a lot of angst. Two mountain lion attacks are handled to keep scares to a minimum.
When running with the horses, Flicka is beautiful; director Mayer shows a flair for this kind of action cinematography. If you're looking for a winning horse drama like Seabiscuit, you'll find this one guilty of being way too predictable as a movie, but pretty good as a music video. Not everything rings true, but McGraw and Bello give it a few good moments, and it's harmless. If that's enough for you, give it a suspended sentence.
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• Tim McGraw's "My Little Girl" Music Video
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