- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 13, 2005

A self-evidently absurd but good-hearted sports comedy aimed at the family market, “Racing Stripes” champions the impossible competitive dream of an orphaned zebra, named Stripes by his affectionate teenage guardian.

Growing up next to a Kentucky thoroughbred farm and racetrack, Stripes aspires to challenge the big colts and gets a chance to outrace them. Although plentifully reinforced by computer-animated trick shots, the filmmakers rely on fanciful sympathy more than optical skill to convince spectators that their domesticated zebra could stand a chance, despite being conspicuously smaller and shorter-legged than the horses he wants to emulate.

In the last movie of this ridiculously diverting kind, “Hot to Trot,” from 1988, John Candy dubbed the voice of a motormouth nag called Don, who was out of shape but excelled at psyching rivals from starting gate to finish line. In contrast, Stripes, dubbed by Frankie Muniz, is an ingenuous juvenile who never competes with the other animal characters in wisecracks and punchlines.

The animators mock credibility in the wacky “Hot to Trot” fashion. The earlier movie cast Burgess Meredith as the voice of a horsefly, Don’s elderly racing guru. The new movie employs David Spade and Steve Harvey as the voices of a horsefly duo, Scuzz and Buzz, respectively, allowed to sabotage selected rivals in order to shorten the odds against Stripes.

Although roundly rebuked when new, “Hot to Trot” was a defensible spoof of everything inspirational that had piled up since “Rocky” and “Chariots of Fire.” The cast was also happily ill-assorted: Mr. Candy and Mr. Meredith (deliberately kidding his “Rocky” role), Bobcat Goldthwait, Virginia Madsen, Cindy Pickett, Dabney Coleman and Gilbert Gottfried (as a horse dentist).

“Racing Stripes” may have the stronger ensemble. Bruce Greenwood is Nolan Walsh, the widowed farmer and former horse trainer who rescues Stripes. The barnyard that welcomes the little zebra includes Dustin Hoffman as the voice of a Shetland pony, Whoopi Goldberg as a talking goat, Jeff Foxworthy as a rooster, Snoop Dogg as a slumbering hound and Joe Pantoliano as an exiled New Jersey pelican who calls himself Goose — and suggests a parody of Mr. Pantoliano’s erstwhile character on “The Sopranos.” Fred Dalton Thompson, resuming his movie career after a sojourn in the U.S. Senate, dubs a sternly contemptuous voice, a retired thoroughbred called Sir Trenton.

Nolan’s daughter Channing (the incredibly beaming yet appealing Hayden Panettiere) loves Stripes from the moment Dad brings the foundling home during a rainstorm. She also wants to be a jockey, a profession that runs in the family but worries Nolan. An irresistible object of audience rooting interest, the naive, sprint-happy zebra also serves didactic purposes when screenwriter David Schmidt wants to remind us that colts should not sneer at runts with striped hides.

As Nolan, Bruce Greenwood seems to belong to a Kentucky setting, even though he hails from Canada and the movie was shot in South Africa. Since playing John F. Kennedy in “Thirteen Days,” Mr. Greenwood has emerged as one of the least affected and most accomplished film actors on the English-speaking screen.

**

TITLE: “Racing Stripes”

RATING: PG (Recurrent slapstick vulgarity; scatological jokes entrusted to talking insects)

CREDITS: Directed by Frederik Du Chau. Written by David Schmidt. Cinematography by David Eggby. Production design by Wolf Kroeger. Supervising animal trainer: Karl Lewis Miller. Supervising horse trainer: Heath Harris. Music by Mark Isham.

RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes

WEB SITE: http://racingstripesmovie.warnerbros.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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