Judge Steve Evans wanted to come up with a zebra joke for this blurb, but he doesn't know any.
His stripes made him an outcast. His heart made him a hero.
A zebra raised on a Kentucky farm trains to race against thoroughbred horses in this talking-animal comedy aimed at young children.
Facts of the Case
A traveling circus accidentally abandons a baby zebra on a country road during a torrential storm. Horse trainer Nolan Walsh (Bruce Greenwood, Thirteen Days) finds the animal and takes him home to his adolescent daughter Channing (Hayden Panettiere, Raising Helen), who names the zebra Stripes. Channing dreams of racing, though her troubled father won't allow it because Channing's mother was killed in a riding accident.
While the humans mull their problems, it turns out animals still talk á la Babe when people aren't around to hear. Stripes ingratiates himself with the other farm animals and becomes entangled in humorous situations both fly and fowl. The horses declare him zebra non grata and make the race track strictly off-limits. Stripes yearns to race as he learns life lessons from a pony, a goat, a wayward pelican, and other assorted barnyard fauna.
Channing resolves to ride Stripes in the big derby, with her father's reluctant blessing and under the evil eye of farm owner Clara Dalrymple (Wendie Malick, perhaps best known as the oversexed Nina on the television sitcom Just Shoot Me). Dalrymple makes a dangerous wager with Channing's dad, raising the stakes so high that the zebra absolutely must win the race to ensure the salvation of his adoptive family.
Was the outcome ever in doubt? What the hay: We know Stripes will save the day. He's no barn loser.
Did I just write that? Yes, and it's on par with the film's humor, such as it is. But effective computer animation and well-trained animals turn Racing Stripes into a better picture than we might expect from this familiar material.
Hardship and adversity give way to a happy ending in a formulaic film that delivers lowbrow comedy—sure to delight children, although their parents will groan at the shovelfuls of scatological humor. Two computer-animated flies, one voiced, appropriately enough, by David Spade (Joe Dirt), converse extensively on the epicurean delights of that particular waste product flies are prone to consume. That's on the low end of the scale.
On the upside, Greenwood, as the father, adds emotional resonance to what could have been a throwaway role. Panettiere channels her best teenage Elizabeth Taylor (National Velvet) with wide, expressive eyes and a quivering lip to signal imminent emotion. Veteran character actor M. Emmet Walsh (Blood Simple) adds texture as a grizzled horse handicapper, and Malick is suitably villainous as the greedy farm owner, nailing the seriocomic tone that these movies require.
The film veers occasionally into ham-fisted proselytizing, wagging a finger (hoof?) at racism and prejudice, although Stripes is no clear target. Much debate centers on whether he's a black horse with white stripes or a white horse with black stripes; bada-bing!
Besides Spade, the eclectic voice talent includes Whoopi Goldberg, Dustin Hoffman, Frankie Muniz, Mandy Moore, Joe Pantoliano, and Snoop Dogg. Hoffman's involvement—as the voice of a talking pony—is inscrutable. Pantoliano's Mafioso pelican (?!), a riff on his character from The Sopranos, gets a few laughs, while rapper Snoop Dogg's vocal take on a lazy hound comes off the best.
A crisp digital transfer and vigorous 5.1 audio mix (in three languages, no less) are first-rate. Warner Bros. also loads the disc with an unexpected and impressive set of extra features, including a director's commentary, alternate ending, outtakes, featurettes on working with the animals, even a modest video game. Warner is commended for packing so much added-value content into this product.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This is strictly kids' stuff, and only the most indulgent parent would willingly sit twice through Racing Stripes. That doesn't change the fact that children, including mine, enjoy this picture.
The film depends on cutesy animal commentary and crude humor to elicit laffs from the prepubescent crowd, with enough poignant moments to make this worth a one-time watch for adults. As a Triumph-Over-Adversity tale, Racing Stripes is innocuous fun, but Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney—and, for that matter, Babe—covered this turf with a lot more heart.
Racing Stripes is free to gambol and frolic in DVD players everywhere.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Director Frederik Du Chau
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