In the live-action talking animal genre, "Racing Stripes" is no "Babe" but should delight youngsters, although parents likely will find it is sentimental in the extreme, with a plot that telegraphs every development. Efficiently directed, however, by Frederik Du Chau from David F. Schmidt's script, the film is populated with endearing animals that are expertly anthropomorphized and that are voiced by, among others, a sprinkling of famous names, including Dustin Hoffman, no less.
In a well-staged opening sequence, a traveling circus is packing up in the midst of a storm and inadvertently overlooks a baby zebra that is rescued by farmer Nolan Walsh (Bruce Greenwood), much to the delight of his daughter, Channing (Hayden Panettiere). Walsh has been widowed since his jockey wife and her horse were killed in a racing accident. As a result, he has given up training horses for his nasty neighbor (Wendie Malick), the greedy queen of the Kentucky racing circuit, and ekes out a living as a farmer. Three years pass and the zebra, called Stripes (voiced by Frankie Muniz), unaware that he is not a horse, has an itch for racing. So does Channing, even though it's the last thing her father would permit her to do. Clearly, Channing and Stripes will prevail.
Much of the movie is devoted to barnyard antics, as Stripes is befriended and schooled by the Walshes' veritable menagerie. Most influential is the gruff Shetland pony Tucker (Hoffman), who understands and encourages Stripes' urge to race. Never mind that a zebra doesn't have the size and strength of a horse, Tucker tells Stripes, he has the biggest heart he ever encountered. The goat Franny (Whoopi Goldberg) chimes in from time to time with advice, as does Goose (Joe Pantoliano), a gangster pelican on the lam. The liveliest -- and hippest -- of the farm creatures are a pair of zany horseflies, Buzz (Steve Harvey) and Scuzz (David Spade).
Life lessons about the importance of self-acceptance and the pursuit of one's dream are implicit and refreshingly free of heavy-handedness, and the film's large cast, which includes M. Emmet Walsh, is effective.
Making a bunch of animals seem as if they really are talking is not the only trick "Racing Stripes" pulls off: It was filmed entirely in South Africa, but audiences might never guess that it wasn't shot in America's bluegrass country.
MPAA rating: PG for mild crude humor and some language
Times guidelines: Suitable for all ages
Frankie Muniz...Voice of Stripes
Bruce Greenwood...Nolan Walsh
Hayden Panettiere...Channing Walsh
Dustin Hoffman...Voice of Tucker
Whoopi Goldberg...Voice of Franny
A Warner Bros. presentation of an Alcon Entertainment production. Director Frederik Du Chau. Producers Andrew A. Kosove, Broderick Johnson, Ed McDonnell, Lloyd Phillips. Executive producer Steven P. Wegner. Screenplay David F. Schmidt; from a story by Schmidt & Wegner and Kirk De Micco & Du Chau. Cinematographer David Eggby. Editor Tom Finan. Music Mark Isham. Costumes Jo Katsaras. Production designer Wolf Kroeger. Art director Jonathan Hely-Hutchinson. Set decorator Emilia Roux Weavind. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.
In general release.