A horse is a horse, of course, of course, unless, of course, that horse is really a friendly zebra with delusions of grandeur and a bad case of equestrian love.
Such is the case with the hero of Racing Stripes, a children's comedy with modest ambitions, competent live-action and voice performances and enough appeal for parents. Aside from two or three brief bits of animal-related potty humor, this second feature from Belgian-born filmmaker Frederik Du Chau (1998's Quest for Camelot) contains nothing objectionable.
Stripes, the offspring of circus zebras, begins his new life swaddled in blankets and shivering in a basket, accidentally abandoned on a cold and rainy night in Kentucky. His inadvertent rescuer is farmer Nolan Walsh (Bruce Greenwood), a kindly, downtrodden ex-horse trainer whose wife was killed in a riding accident. Nolan's bubbly teenage daughter, Channing (Hayden Panettiere, Raising Helen), persuades her father to keep the curiosity.
Once the humans leave the stables, the animals start talking to each other, and Stripes (voiced by Frankie Muniz and Jansen Panettiere) gets acquainted with various critters at the Walsh barn, including supportive Shetland pony Tucker (Dustin Hoffman); lazy hound dog Lightning (Snoop Dogg); sarcastic goat Franny (Whoopi Goldberg); excitable rooster Reggie (Jeff Foxworthy); and Mafia-family reject Goose (Joe Pantoliano), a misnamed pelican with a Jersey accent.
Also on Stripes' side are Buzz (Steve Harvey) and Scuzz (David Spade), a pair of houseflies quick to supply groan-worthy puns and jokes; while resting on the zebra's hide, they turn in a version of the pop single Ebony and Ivory that's even sappier than the original Paul McCartney-Stevie Wonder duet.
Stripes, soon enough, courts the affections of a sweet-spirited pony, Sandy (Mandy Moore), and his intention to make a place in the world of high-stakes horse racing enrages the likes of champion racer Sir Trenton (Fred Dalton Thompson) and his son, Trenton's Pride (Joshua Jackson). Channing's plans to ride Stripes in the Kentucky Open create friction with her father, and antagonize her dad's former boss, the Cruella De Vil-like wealthy horse owner Clara Dalrymple (Wendie Malick).
Horseplay aside, Racing Stripes, in the mold of many children's films, offers tolerance and diversity messages. "You're just different," the older, wiser Tucker, de facto leader of the barnyard animals, tells Stripes. "And for some horses, different is scary." But worthy themes aren't everything: Racing Stripes doesn't come close to the wit and imagination of the thoroughbred of talking-animal flicks, Babe.
Director: Frederik Du Chau
Cast: Bruce Greenwood, Hayden Panettiere, Wendie Malick, M. Emmet Walsh, Gary Bullock, Casper Poyck and the voices of Frankie Muniz, Mandy Moore, Michael Clark Duncan, Jeff Foxworthy, Joshua Jackson, Snoop Dogg, Joe Pantoliano, Michael Rosenbaum, Steve Harvey, David Spade, Fred Dalton Thompson, Dustin Hoffman, Whoopi Goldberg.
Screenplay: David Schmidt, Steven P. Wegner, Kirk De Micco, Frederik Du Chau
Running time: 94 min.; mild crude humor and some language.