Near the end of “Racing Stripes”, something extremely pleasant happened. It was one of those rare moments, so damn charming, that connect you to a whole other reality which is called, in grownup terms, the target audience of that movie. As two adorable little girls no older than 4 or 5 years old stood clapping and screaming “Go Stripes! Go Stripes!” at the top of their little lungs, I experienced through them all of the magic of that timeworn movie formula known as the final big race.
What “Racing Stripes” attempts to do, it does with flair and only a few false notes. It is certainly comparable to “Babe”, its obvious predecessor. Both films develop out of the same belief: that just because you’re different doesn’t mean you can’t do a specific thing. Here we have the story of Stripes, the little zebra that could. We find ourselves in Kentucky, where a traveling circus mistakenly leaves behind a baby zebra. Looking miserable under torrential rain in his wicker basket, he is picked up by Nolan Walsh (Bruce Greenwood), a corn farmer who stopped training champion racehorses after his wife had a fatal accident while training one. Nolan’s daughter Channing (Raising Helen’s Hayden Panettiere) immediately falls for the little guy, who, oblivious to his zebra nature, dreams of being a racehorse when he sees the racetrack just beyond the Walsh farm. But over there, horses like Trenton’s Pride (voiced by Joshua Jackson) keep telling him he can never become one and mock his efforts, and Channing is laughed at when she brings Stripes to the track, where she does cleanup duty.
As in “Babe”, several other talking animals are on hand and the voice talent is a masterstroke. There’s wise old goat Franny (Whoopi Goldberg), a Shetland pony called Tucker (Dustin Hoffman) and mafia-escaping pelican Goose (Joe Pantoliano), who’s in hiding because he had a disagreement with his family over whether to whack him. Goose’s arrival is pretty eventful, full of funny trash-talking about his new surroundings (he says even Old MacDonald wouldn’t want this farm!), and by the time we’re through he’ll have thrown in a few other cultural and film references. And as it seems even zebras need companionship, a white filly named Sandy (Mandy Moore) takes a liking to Stripes (Frankie Muniz) while refusing the advances of Trenton’s Pride. Think of it as the head cheerleader choosing the eager underdog over the star quarterback.
On the annoying side are two scatological flies voiced by Steve Harvey and the terminally irritating David Spade. Most of their interventions are as pleasant as fingernails on a chalkboard, and I also didn’t get why after all this time (at least three years go by in the film), Stripes expresses such surprise when he’s informed two thirds of the way through that he’s actually a zebra. Didn’t anybody tell him? I’m also unsure Nolan’s prize trophies and pictures would be placed in a barn, however well-protected.
But those are minor problems in a very enjoyable film. Director Frederick du Chau (“Quest for Camelot”), a Belgian with an extensive background in animation, displays a sure hand in his first live-action feature. The pacing is good, and his film reaches a visual pinnacle with the staging of the “Blue Moon Race”, which is poetically tinted with the aforementioned color. He also doesn’t let potentially maudlin elements like Nolan holding back her daughter’s dream of horse (or zebra) racing – and his eventual acceptance and encouragement of that goal – overwhelm the picture.
As I expressed in my opening paragraph, I have a good feeling kids will love Stripes, both the character and the film, and adults will as well if they only let themselves. Fans of “Rocky IV”, which I’m unashamed to confess to being, will also find odd similarities in the training sequences of Trenton’s Pride and Stripes, particularly the use of Ivan Drago-like technology for the former and of old-fashioned techniques for the latter. To continue in the vein of over-the-top patriotic movies, as “Team America” told us, even “Rocky” had a montage. Now people, even zebras get a montage, and it’s a winner.
Review by Jean-François Tremblay