I wonder, do studio execs just roll out of their beds one morning and say, "Time for another talking animal movie!"? Well, somehow, we got Racing Stripes, a feel-good family film that's surprisingly easy to take. The ol' flapping mouth technology has come a long way since Mr. Ed and while no one will walk out quoting killer punchlines, the requisite fart jokes and pop cultural references are slightly zestier than usual.
Always-reliable workhorse Bruce Greenwood plays Nolan Walsh, a hardened widower who has sublimated his racehorse training instincts to raise his daughter Channing (Hayden Panettiere, familiar to fans of TV's Malcolm in the Middle) and tend his farm, which borders the Turfway Park racetrack. Channing works under the spiteful Mrs. Dalrymple (Wendie Malick), who still resents Nolan's talent. When Nolan rescues a zebra accidentally abandoned by a circus caravan, Channing insists that they keep him. The zebra, Stripes (voiced by Malcolm in the Middle star Frankie Muniz), thinks he's a racehorse, and I think we can all see where this is going.
Nolan's adamant that Stripes is not to be ridden, but the barnyard animals—voiced by an eccentric assemblage of stars—conspire to make it happen, leading to an inevitable climax at the "Kentucky Open." Due to Frederick Du Chai's solid direction, the big climax turns out to be more rousing than it perhaps deserves to be, and the comic relief characters are good for a few chuckles. Joe Pantoliano speaks for Goose, a mobbed-up pelican from Jersey, and Steve Harvey and David Spade voice Buzz and Scuzz, two flies who always seem to be hanging around (dig their zebra-inspired rendition of "Ebony and Ivory").
Racing Stripes is a junior Seabiscuit, complete with a drawling horse trainer named Cooper (Gary Bullock); another scene, depicting the illicit nighttime "Blue Moon Races" riffs on The Fast and the Furious. M. Emmett Walsh brings his beloved idiosyncracies to the party as a betting man named Woodzie, and the voice cast comes off of a deep bench, including Fred Dalton Thompson (who trots through to harrumph, "Fun is overrated") and Dustin Hoffman and Whoopi Goldberg as a de facto couple (Shetland pony and goat, respectfully). Most of the dialogue is standard-issue, like Mandy Moore's filly retorting "Talk to the tail, boys," but screenwriter David Schmidt lobs some positive messages about self-confidence and acceptance (Hoffman's pony tells Stripes, "For some horses, different is scary").
Racing Stripes crawls away from Dr. Doolittle and toward the talking animal movie gold standard, Babe. As such, this one is sort of cute, but basically flavorless. I've got no beef with Racing Stripes; I guess zebra is better than horse meat.