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`Flicka' only trots behind its original

The well-known horse story mixes modern sensibilities with tugs of the heartstrings. But it doesn't always mesh.

October 20, 2006|Michael Wilmington | Chicago Tribune

"Flicka" is a modernized version of that great sentimental horse movie, 1943's "My Friend Flicka," and it comes with the glitzy trappings and accessories you might expect.

The cinematography has the usual expensive sheen; Alison Lohman, as Katy McLaughlin, is in the Roddy McDowall role of the kid who loves a horse; and country and western singer Tim McGraw plays the good but tough dad, Rob McLaughlin, posing against deep blue skies and singing a new song. There are also lots of picturesque scenes of rodeos and the ranch, helicopter shots of stampeding wild horses, and blue-jeaned Westerners stretching their Levis -- including Maria Bello as the mom.

Something is missing, though.

In this "Flicka," everything is a little too big, grandiose and commercially beautiful. "My Friend Flicka" was about an unruly little colt who, with the help of her boy owner, became an upstanding equine citizen. This "Flicka" is about a rebellious young Laramie, Wyo., girl who leaves her private school and finds her great love, a wild mustang separated from her herd, an animal Katy wants to turn into her own riding horse.

The first "Flicka," based on Mary O'Hara's novel and made during World War II, was one of those pictures in which photogenic animals bond with photogenic youngsters to the delight of generations.

I'm not being sarcastic; I'm a sucker for some of these movies. And the original "My Friend Flicka" did for horses what 1946's "The Yearling" did for fawns and 1943's "Lassie Come Home" did for collies. The appeal of those movies was timeless, and because we just got a fine new version of "Lassie Come Home" (this year's "Lassie"), it seemed reasonable to expect a good ride from "Flicka" as well.

No such luck. The writers are the much-filmed Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner (of "Superman IV" and "Star Trek VI"), and even at its best, the movie sounds like a standard Hollywood product in an automatic heartfelt mode. It looks like a collection of country and western videos, even when McGraw is off-screen.

McGraw, who had a good acting debut in "Friday Night Lights," tries to summon up paternal sternness, and Lohman gives a surly performance that doesn't suit her.

Bello laughs a lot, and Ryan Kwanten, as Katy's brother Howard, tries to meld contemporary hip-kid attitudes with "The Dukes of Hazzard." As for McGraw's original song here, "My Little Girl," I only wish he'd written and sung more of them.

The director of "Flicka," Michael Mayer, is a prize-winning theater director ("Thoroughly Modern Millie" and "A View From the Bridge") who made his movie debut with 2004's Cleveland-to-Greenwich Village sexual drama "A Home at the End of the World." That suggests an entirely different kind of movie than what we see here; even so, it's hard to figure out why "Flicka" seems so shallow, a cliche factory groping for our heartstrings.

"Flicka" received some highly negative publicity when, according to Variety, two of the company's horses died during filming. Ultimately the American Humane Assn., though not faulting anyone for negligence, gave it the designation "American Humane monitored the animal action," instead of the usual disclaimer, "No animals were harmed." That tends to put a pall on the movie, although the only negligence we see involves the script.



MPAA rating: PG for some mild language

A 20th Century Fox release of a Fox 2000 presentation. Director Michael Mayer. Screenplay Mark Rosenthal, Lawrence Konner. Based on the novel "My Friend Flicka" by Mary O'Hara. Producer Gil Netter. Director of photography J. Michael Muro. Editor Andrew Marcus. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.

In general release.

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