A baby zebra, accidentally left behind by a travelling zoo, is taken in by a kindly local farmer named Nolan Walsh. His daughter falls instantly in love with the creature and convinces her father to keep him. Imaginatively named "Stripes", the high spirited tyke soon makes friends with the farm's motley complement of animals. As Stripes begins to explore the farm he glimpses the nearby racetrack. Fascinated by the spectacle of the thoroughbreds charging around the track, Stripes vows that he will grow up to be a racehorse. To his dismay his vow makes him the subject of mild hilarity amongst his barnyard friends, and attracts the stinging scorn of the neighbouring racehorses. But the plucky little zebra refuses to give up his dream. When Stripes discovers that Nolan used to be the finest racehorse trainer in the state, he hatches a daring plan to bring him out of retirement and win himself a place in the year's most prestigious horserace.
"Racing Stripes" is the kind of good old-fashioned family fare that puts the struggling Disney to shame. After five decades of dominance, the granddaddy of the kiddies movie if finding upstarts like Warner Brothers who can copy their model, tweak it in the right places to add some attitude and proceed to trample all over oatmeal offerings like "The Country Bears" or "Around the World in 80 Days".
In many ways "Racing Stripes" should be the ultimate kids movie: an underdog tale with talking animals, just-clean-enough jokes, good honest morals and more "aw cute" moments than you can shake a stick at. But even with all six cylinders firing, "Racing Stripes" still far from a classic. Despite the all-star cast, the flawless production values and the troupe of perfectly trained animals, a movie like "Babe" makes it look clunky, wooden and charmless.
That said, classics like "Babe" don't come along every year, and "Racing Stripes" is certainly worth the price of admission. For one thing, it looks utterly fabulous, dressed in gorgeous vivid colours and chocolate box lighting. The action scenes are flawless, blending live action, CGI and animal antics into a convincing whole. The animal scenes alone must have taken hundreds of hours to perfect. And you can easily take your youngest without fear of terrifying them or exposing them to swearing.
The animal characters are generally endearing, though Dustin Hoffman and Whoopi Goldberg both ham it up so much that they tend to ruin the scenes they're in. They aren't helped by an awkward script that verges on stating the obvious, though this is undoubtedly aimed at keeping the four-year-olds up to speed. Bored parents will rejoice at the over-the-top antics of Joe Pantoliano as he voices a mafiosa pelican named Goose. His sly references to gangster films are amongst the only real highlights for the over 12s.
The human characters are fairly one-dimensional and are content to stay on the sidelines where they belong. Fans of Jeff Foxworthy and Snoop Dogg beware - these two hilarious scamps share about 10 lines of dialogue between them, and the movie will be a great disappointment if you expect more than the briefest of cameos from either of them.
The bottom line? Production dollars and cuddly family fun aside, "Racing Stripes" isn't worth watching unless you have kids. It's a pity that it wasn't made ten or fifteen years ago, before the revolution in children's cinema really took hold. Its good looks and parent friendly humour would have blown punters out of the water back then. But now, after groundbreaking films like "The Lion King", "Finding Nemo" and "Babe", it's very hard to even compete on the same playing field. Still, it'll keep the nippers quiet for two whole hours, and with lowest ticket prices in 20 years, it's a bargain.
- Alistair Fairweather
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