God bless Hollywood's family film genre. Where else could Malcolm in the Middle star Frankie Muniz receive top-billing over Oscar winners Dustin Hoffman and Whoopi Goldberg? And where else could squeaky-clean pop singer Mandy Moore share screen credits with gangster rap sensation Snoop Dogg?
These talents, of course, provide voices to an array of talking animals in the live action heartwarmer Racing Stripes, a sort of stripy Seabiscuit about an orphaned zebra with a horse's heart for racing. The misled mare, aptly nicknamed Stripes, wants desperately to compete with rival horses at the Kentucky Open - the Bluegrass State's natural landscapes contributing an exquisite backdrop to the film's conventional action. Along the way, the zebra is coached by a widowed father (Bruce Greenwood), his dedicated daughter (Hayden Panettiere), and a stable of talking animals including a Shetland pony (Hoffman), a goat (Goldberg), a rooster (Jeff Foxworthy), and two manure-craving flies named Buzz (Steve Harvey) and Scuzz (David Spade).
Stripes wedges valuable lessons in a pleasing package. The film receives instant bonus points for employing actual animals and avoiding animation, arguably an easier alternative. The horses on parade are magnificent beasts, which director Frederik Du Chau impressively corrals and choreographs for required scenes. When Du Chau needs his horses to perform a difficult task, like slide through the mud, he relies on sketchy CGI.
Comparisons to Chris Noonan's Babe are inevitable, with chatty farm animals helping Stripes figure out his true identity. The underdog formula remains at play, though there's sincere humor throughout. We visit the Blue Moon Races, a creative proving-ground sequence modeled after The Fast and the Furious street contests (now 2 Horse, 2 Furious, perhaps?). Joe Pantoliano even gets consistent laughs as a Mafioso pelican, a wise guy - he's no stool pigeon - bringing big-city toughness to the country.
Other script elements suffer broad strokes. The bad people (and bad horses, for that matter) are unbearably mean. Wendie Malick's character is so wicked that the actress should change her last name to "Malice." She's the Cruella De Vil of the derby, and Malick plays her as despicable as possible. Buzz and Scuzz, meanwhile, are notable computer-generated creations that move about with impressive precision. Too bad Spade and Harvey's improvised jokes stink worse than the manure on which these misfits perch.
Warner Bros. is doing Racing Stripes a decent-sized disservice by unleashing it into the typically cruel cinematic wastelands of mid-January. Lesser movies have died out there, competing against winter weather and the usual onslaught of Academy Award-worthy contenders that roll out to regional theaters at the start of each new year.
The suspicious release date might lead you to believe it stinks, but that isn't the case. It's simply by-the-numbers family entertainment. The root story stays sweet, and the human protagonists have real choices to make, real issues to settle. It's interesting that back stories and attitudes make the other animals in the barn far more interesting than Stripes, who gets hung up on the fact that he wants to be a race horse. Potential sequels might do well by following up on the supporting players, so long as they aren't named Buzz and Scuzz.
The DVD offers an alternate ending, outtakes, deleted scenes, commentary track, and plenty of making-of docs.
Fruit Stripes, good gum.