What do you get if you combine "Mr. Ed," "Francis the Talking Mule," "Animal Farm," and the two "Babe" pictures? Not much in the case of 2004's "Racing Stripes," actually, except talking animals. In the first two examples, the animals talked to people; in the others, including "Racing Stripes," the animals talk to each other. Fortunately, they speak in English so we can listen in. But it's only the "Babe" movies that succeed in sustaining this adult's interest for long. The others are either gimmick features, films or TV shows based on a single contrivance, or a classic novel that has yet to find an adequate screen adaptation.
"Racing Stripes" suggests a fable in which anybody can be anything if he puts his mind to it. A boy named Marion with a dog named Duke can become one of Hollywood's biggest macho movie stars. Macho movie stars with zero political experience can become governors of states. A zebra can become a race horse. Go figure. Goofier things have happened.
Anyway, "Racing Stripes" is strictly a kids' film, and as such it works pretty well. It's got all the humor, drama, color, and goofiness kids seem to enjoy in movies. But for adults it may all seem pretty trite, old hat, stereotyped, and boring. You have been duly warned.
The story concerns a baby zebra separated from a circus and raised on a Kentucky corn farm by the Walshes: handsome farmer Nolan Walsh (Bruce Greenwood) and his pretty teenage daughter Channing Walsh (Hayden Panettiere). It's hard to say who's the cuter, the daughter or the baby zebra. Both are a little too precious for words.
No sooner does the Zebra arrive than it's named Stripes, and no sooner do the humans leave the scene than the animals start chattering away. Most of the time their lips match their words, thanks to VFX and CGI. Everything about the film, though, from the title to the daughter to the zebra to the other animals, is so cute and sweet, there's some small danger of getting a sugar rush in the first twenty minutes. Even the background music by Sting and Bryan Adams is syrupy, in a totally nondescript way.
There's a racetrack just over the hill from the farm, and Nolan Walsh used to train racehorses there before his wife died (in a riding accident). Now consider that Stripes loves to run, "it's in his heart," and you know what's going to happen. But not before three years pass.
Stripes grows up, but the humans seem to get no older. Ms. Panettiere continues to smile continuously, whether she's talking or riding or walking by herself; it's a condition ameliorated only during brief arguments with her father about riding Stripes to work and later to race, and then she assumes a sort of grimace or frown. But they're cute grimaces and frowns.
Stripes continues to dream of racing against thoroughbreds, and eventually he gets his chance, despite the physical absurdity of the situation. Remember, it's a child's fable foremost, not a realistic drama. The real racehorses make fun of Stripes, just as Dumbo was ridiculed by his fellow circus animals and as Rudolph was ridiculed by the other reindeer. Yeah, you can guess what happens next. Stripes is fast. Very fast. So we know the movie's got to end in a climactic race.
The film's main claim to fame, however, is the talking-animal gambit and its use of famous movie-star voices. Stripes is voiced by Frankie Muniz ("Malcolm in the Middle," "Agent Cody Banks"), but you might never know it. He's probably the least effective voice in the film because it seems so ordinary and uninflected. One of the most recognizable voices is that of Dustin Hoffman as Tucker, a grumpy Shetland pony and Stripes's mentor. Yet I couldn't help thinking of Hoffman's role in "Tootsie," where his actor character complains of getting fired because he couldn't satisfactorily play a tomato. Another recognizable voice is that of Whoopi Goldberg as Franny, an old goat. Unfortunately, simply being recognizable as Hoffman or Goldberg doesn't necessarily translate into anything of importance. They're just tomatoes.
Joe Pantoliano as the voice of Goose, a wisecracking East Coast wise-guy pelican on the lamb from the Mob, provides the funniest and edgiest bits in the film. Goose is a kind of Joe Pesci type from "Goodfellas," and he makes you wonder if maybe the whole story shouldn't have centered on his character instead of the zebra. Another couple of interesting voices are provided by Steve Harvey and David Spade as Buzz and Scuz, a pair of brother horseflies with a penchant for hip-hop harmony.
Other voices and characters don't fare as well. The voices of Mandy Moore as Sandy, as a champion jumping horse; Fred Dalton Thompson as Sir Trenton, an evil, stuck-up racehorse; Jeff Foxworthy as Reggie, a red rooster; Snoop Dog as Lightning, a lazy hound; and Michael Clarke Duncan as a Clydesdale are heard only briefly and to little advantage. Actors M. Emmit Walsh as Woodzie, a drunken old racetrack addict; Wendie Malick as Clara Dairymple, a villainous racehorse owner; and Gary Bullock as Miss Dairymple's horse trainer are stereotypes almost lost in the crowd.
Poop, burp, fart, and snot jokes are all the rage in children's movies these days, so expect plenty of them here. "Racing Stripes" is aimed strictly at the kiddie set, and as such it probably succeeds. But adults may find it drippy, sentimental, and entirely predictable. It's a routine, by-the-numbers effort with little going for it beyond its star-studded cast.
The picture is presented in dimensions close enough to its 1.85:1 theatrical-release ratio to fill the screen of a 16x9 television, and it's transferred to disc in anamorphic widescreen at a high enough bit rate to ensure bright, deep, solid colors. There are still a few shimmering horizontal lines to be found and definition is only so-so, but grain is almost nonexistent.
The sound is reproduced courtesy of Dolby Digital 5.1, and its strong suits are a wide dynamic range, strong transient impact, and satisfyingly deep bass. The front stereo spread is also good, but, surprisingly, there is little use of the rear-channel surrounds, except in very minor instances of musical ambiance enhancement.
Beyond the expected audio commentary with director Frederik Du Chau, there are various short and, for me, largely uninteresting bonus features. But there are a number of them, so at least something may strike a chord with some viewers. The aforementioned audio commentary, for instance, is the first one the director says he's ever done, just as this is his first live-action movie. He talks about the technical aspects of the film to a greater extent than most directors do, and he leaves us with the impression that the picture was a lot better planned than the finished product would suggest. However, to access the commentary you have to find it buried on the third page of extras. It seems odd that it wasn't also displayed on the audio menu or placed on the first page of extras.
Next come an alternate ending and about nine minutes' worth of outtakes, segments that can be played separately or all at once. A five-minute featurette, "How to Make Animals Talk," follows and we learn from the VFX experts how computer animation was used to synchronize the animals' mouths with their words. Next is a ten-minute featurette, "Acting Class 101," with the animals and their trainers. I'm not sure what it says about the movie when the segment on how the movie was made is more interesting than the movie itself. After that are five additional scenes, totalling about two-and-a-half minutes, followed by "Buzz and Scuzz's Flying Fiasco Challenge," a remote-controlled horse racing game that eluded me. Then, there's a six-minute virtual comic book, "The Racing Stripes Prequel," with or without a narrator reading it aloud, that provides some back story on the movie. Finally, there twenty-six scene selections; a four-minute featurette, "The Music of Racing Stripes"; and a widescreen theatrical trailer. But no chapter or informational insert comes with the package. English, French, and Spanish are provided for the movie's spoken languages and subtitles.
No doubt "Racing Stripes" will appeal mainly to kids under twelve, especially if they haven't seen many such similar children's movies. The film's themes that with enough motivation one can accomplish anything, that the underdog can win in the end, and that diversity is the spice of life can be uplifting and inspirational. To an adult such ideas may be clichéd from overuse, but to a child they are probably still fresh enough to be appealing. And while most of the film's humor is rather juvenile, we must remember its target audience. Therefore, I have no doubt that "Racing Stripes" will be a solid hit with younger kids. But adults watching it with them may want to bring along a good book.