Pity the poor zebra who yearns to be a racehorse. Neither nature nor breeding have given him the strength or stamina to outrun a thoroughbred, and what's more, the animal in question—an abandoned zebra named Stripes (voice of Frankie Muniz) who is found and adopted by a retired horse trainer named Nolan Walsh (Bruce Greenwood)—has suffered a lifetime of taunts from barnyard animals who think he's a little, well, different. And just to add insult to injury, even when Stripes gets a movie all to himself, the marketing team assigned to promote the film forgets what species he is. "Cheer 'til you're horse!" proclaim the ads, which is just the sort of thing to make a zebra's identity crisis even worse.

Stripes (voiced by Frankie Muniz) and Channing (Hayden Pannetiere) form a bond from the giddy-up

Stripes (voiced by Frankie Muniz) and Channing (Hayden Pannetiere) form a bond from the giddy-up

Oh, but let's not be too serious. Racing Stripes is a live-action cartoon, one of those films in which real animals speak human dialogue through digitally animated lips and teeth. As these things go, the film is certainly nowhere near as interesting or entertaining as the two Babe movies, but it is probably better than Cats & Dogs, if only because it has a fair bit of heart and takes place in a natural world that people of all ages can relate to. As directed by Belgian animator Frederik Du Chau (Quest for Camelot), Racing Stripes may have its problems—more on those in a minute—but in its own modest way, it is a fun, charming little family film that should keep the kids happy while giving parents a chuckle or two.

The set-up is pretty straightforward. Stripes has grown up next door to an estate where thoroughbreds are trained for the Kentucky Open, and he envies the bigger, more muscular horses who get to flaunt their speed on a regular basis. The horses, of course, mock Stripes for looking kind of funny, but one day they challenge him to show his stuff at the "blue moon races"—an illicit late-night equine gathering, apparently patterned after the midnight street-race scenes of The Fast and the Furious. The sight of all these beasts sharing a secret world far removed from their masters is one of the film's more inspired touches.

Channing and her dad (Bruce Greenwood) get Stripes ready

Channing and her dad (Bruce Greenwood) get Stripes ready

Suffice to say Stripes doesn't come out of the experience looking too good, but his prospects do begin to improve shortly after that. When a New Jersey pelican who says he's fleeing the mob drops by—thus opening the door to many mafia-movie references—he proceeds to do Stripes a favor and "whack" the motorcycle that belongs to Nolan's daughter Channing (Hayden Panettiere); since there are no other modes of transportation around, Channing rides the zebra to her job at the racetrack instead. One thing leads to another, and before long, both Stripes and Channing are training for their big day at the races.

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Ironically, considering this film is supposed to be about animals, and considering most of Du Chau's previous film experience has been in animation, some of Racing Stripes' most convincing moments consist entirely of scenes between real live humans. Nolan Walsh is a widower who used to train horses at the nearby track himself, but he gave that up years ago when his wife died in a riding accident; so when he tries, at first, to prevent Channing from riding the zebra at all, let alone in the race, she naturally feels he has given up on life and has become too protective of her. The exchanges between them may be written in a rather perfunctory manner—obstacle, resolution, obstacle, resolution—but Greenwood and Panettiere invest their scenes with emotional truth. They give the movie its heart.

Buzz (voiced by Steve Harvey) and Scuzz (David Spade) get a fly's-eye view on things

Buzz (voiced by Steve Harvey) and Scuzz (David Spade) get a fly's-eye view on things

That may be a problem, however, if the story is really supposed to be about the animals. As with most farm-set films of this sort, the animals are supposed to represent a living, thriving community that eventually comes to the aid of our protagonist, but the characters themselves are mostly caricatures—Jeff Foxworthy as a redneck rooster, The Sopranos' Joe Pantoliano as a wise-guy pelican, Snoop Dogg as a lazy, um, dog—and they don't quite connect with one another the way they ought to. Steve Harvey and David Spade provide the voices of Buzz and Scuzz, a couple of comic-relief horseflies whose rap-music covers and regular fart-and-poop jokes are only intermittently funny (though the kids will like 'em). And, as the lead zebra and his filly girlfriend, Muniz and Mandy Moore lack the vocal presence that we might expect from creatures of their size and heft. Only Dustin Hoffman truly delivers the goods, modulating his voice to humorous and touching effect as a grumpy Shetland pony who, like Nolan, seems to have given up on reliving past glories.

The film has other weaknesses, too, from its one-dimensional villain—Clara Dalrymple (Wendie Malick), the heartless, aristocratic chairwoman of the Kentucky Open, who makes a very improbable but all-too-Hollywood last-minute bet with Nolan at the climactic race—to its selection of music, which includes a Bryan Adams track that sounds like a leftover from the Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron sessions. In matters like these, the film treads safely where many other filmmakers have gone before. Then again, for the children who are this film's target audience, all the old conventions must seem pretty new, still. Racing Stripes never pulls ahead of the pack, but it's good for a few laps around the track.

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Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. Zebras, we are told, are not natural racers because they have not been domesticated or bred for the purpose the way horses have been. What role do nature and nurture play in shaping our abilities? Is it possible to rise above the circumstances of our birth? If so, how?

  2. What do you make of the relationship between Stripes and the other racehorses? Do you think the younger racehorses secretly respected Stripes all along? How were they influenced by the opinions of the older racehorses? Who was more gracious—the animal that won the race, or the animal that lost? Or were they about equally gracious?

  3. Do you think the horseflies were justified in attacking that one horse during the race? Were they giving Stripes an unfair advantage, or evening the odds? Does it matter whether the horse had been very unfair to Stripes during the race prior to that point?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Racing Stripes is rated PG for mild crude humor and some language. Much of the humor involves excrement and flatulence of the barnyard variety. A couple of male horses also admire a female horse's "flanks." The pelican makes a number of references to mafia and gangster movies that will probably go over the heads of most children (e.g., he tells one horse his head will end up in somebody's bed some day, a la The Godfather).

What Other Critics Are Saying
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet

from Film Forum, 01/20/05

The star of TV's Malcolm in the Middle, Frankie Muniz, plays a very different character in Racing Stripes. He supplies the voice of an abandoned zebra who believes he's a racehorse and follows his dream to the Kentucky Derby, coached along by barnyard buddies and a young girl (Hayden Panettiere). Director Frederik Du Chau tries mixing animation and live-action in the tradition of Babe, and the resulting reviews aren't bad, but they're not exactly raves either.

Peter T. Chattaway (Christianity Today Movies) says it's "nowhere near as interesting or entertaining as the two Babe movies, but it is probably better than Cats & Dogs, if only because it has a fair bit of heart and takes place in a natural world that people of all ages can relate to. [The movie] may have its problems … but in its own modest way, it is a fun, charming little family film that should keep the kids happy while giving parents a chuckle or two."

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David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "Though its crowd-pleasing ending is never much in doubt, the film is a fun and lively ride right out of the starting gate and should leave the competition in the dust. The film imparts a positive message about acceptance and overcoming challenges by believing in yourself."

"It's a little bit Babe, a little bit Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," says Rhonda Handlon (Plugged In). "But it fails to retain the enduring qualities of either of those family classics. Adults will roll their eyes at such unimaginative construction. Children, however, will likely be captivated from the moment they lay eyes on the rain-soaked, frightened zebra and stay hooked through all the cheesy lingo to the predictable finish line. That's why it's necessary to note (again) that the film warranted a PG rating for lots of crude physical humor and scatological jokes. And its primary characters exhibit more than a couple of (uncorrected) character flaws."

But Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk) disagrees, saying that it's "a lovely movie that everyone but the most cynical will enjoy."

Chris Monroe (Christian Spotlight) concludes, "This movie is a lot of fun and did not feel dumbed down because it is something for kids. There are good lessons exemplified throughout. This movie is very inspirational and can be a fun way to enjoy a Saturday afternoon with the family."

Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) says it's "hilarious and satisfying. It's cookie-cutter storytelling … but well done. Laced throughout are product placements for Auto Zone and Kodak, as well as references to other movies like Chicken Run and Field of Dreams. The pop culture payoffs will keep most adults tuned in."

Racing Stripes
Our Rating
2 Stars - Fair
Average Rating
(2 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG (for mild crude humor and some language)
Directed By
Frederik Du Chau
Run Time
1 hour 42 minutes
Frankie Muniz, David Spade, Snoop Dogg
Theatre Release
January 14, 2005 by Warner Brothers
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