In the middle of a raging thunderstorm, a traveling circus accidentally leaves behind some very precious cargo--a baby zebra. The gangly little foal is rescued by horse farmer Nolan Walsh, who takes him home to his young daughter Channing. Once a champion thoroughbred trainer, Walsh has given up horse training for a quiet life with Channing on their modest Kentucky farm. The little zebra, or "Stripes," as Channing calls him, is soon introduced to the farm's misfit troupe of barnyard residents, led by a cranky Shetland Pony named Tucker and Franny, a wise old goat who keeps the family in line. The group is joined by Goose, a deranged big-city pelican who's hiding out in the sticks until the heat dies down in Jersey. The un-aptly named bloodhound Lightening keeps a lazy eye on goings-on at the farm - in between naps. The Walsh farm borders the Turfway Racetrack, where highly skilled thoroughbreds compete for horse racing's top honor, the ultra-prestigious Kentucky Crown. From the first ... Written by
Sujit R. Varma
If you strongly dislike films that are predictable, clichéd or derivative, and you're not showing Racing Stripes to kids, you should avoid this movie. Well, at least looking at things somewhat pessimistically. Ideally, you should sort out the conceptual errors you're making and see the movie, because it is a very good film. The Cult of Originality had it wrong. Artworks aren't inherently more valuable just because they're unprecedented, and they're not inherently less valuable just because they're engaging in a well-established form, or "template", to put it in more modern terms.
Stripes is a zebra who is orphaned at the beginning of the film when a traveling circus accidentally leaves him behind during a storm. Nolan Walsh (Bruce Greenwood) finds him and brings him back to his Kentucky farm (actually South Africa doubling as Kentucky). Walsh, a recent widower, has a teenaged daughter, Channing (Hayden Panettiere), who works at the local horse track for a mean, snooty and rich boss lady, Clara Dalrymple (Wendie Malick). The horse track is the heart of the town. The farm next door to the Walsh's breeds racehorses, and in fact, Walsh used to breed and train racehorses, too, for Clara, and it's implied that Walsh's wife, a former champion jockey, died in a horse-racing accident.
Meanwhile, Stripes is trying to adjust to life on the Walsh farm, which means assimilating with a motley crew of animals. All of the animals can talk to each other, "Mister Ed" (1961)-style, but in the more traditional filmic instantiation of talking animals, they can't talk to humans, although it is implied that they can at least slightly understand human speech. Stripes knows he looks different, but he figures he's a horse, like the racehorses next door, because that's what he looks closest to. Their teasing because he looks different merely creates a stronger desire for him to fit in and even best them, which naturally means a growing desire to race.
Any older cinephile could probably fill in the basic developments of the plot, up to and including the ending, given the premises above. The important consideration is not whether Racing Stripes is unprecedented, but how well it does what it sets out to do. The formulaic aspects of the plot, as with all artworks that engage with some traditional "formula", enhance Racing Stripes rather than detracting from it by (a) filling in a deep milieu of shared meaning, signifiers and so on, and (b) underscoring the ways in which Racing Stripes makes its variations on the form. It's a good film both because it executes the basics of the form so well and because the variations are well done, creative and entertaining. That's if you're an adult, at least. For younger audiences, it's a great film because it's establishing the form in their minds. The form exists as a template because it's a very effective, classic plot rooted in a particular kind of cultural mythology. But this instantiation is simply a funny, inspirational story featuring a talking zebra.
Filmic visual manipulation has come a long way in the 40 years since "Mister Ed". Mister Ed, the original talking horse, was made to "speak" by putting something in his mouth that he would then try to remove. In Racing Stripes, the animal speech is all done through cgi--actually computer animation/manipulation of cinematographic images of the animals' mouths, and it looks incredibly realistic. Like most movies of this sort, Racing Stripes is a pleasure to watch simply for its animal stunts. I suppose one can never get too old or intellectual to enjoy a dancing monkey, so to speak. There are a few instances of animal "stunts" being too dangerous for the animals--such as Stripes' wipeout, so these are animated with cgi, too, and they're integrated very well.
There are also two completely cgi-animated characters--flies named Buzz and Scuzz. These are the most consistently comic characters, although as flies, a lot of their visual humor, at least, hinges on jokes about things like garbage, discarded food, manure, and so on.
The animals are voiced by an all-star cast. Director Frederik Du Chau, in his first live-action film (and only his second film), does an excellent job creating performances from the animals that match the public personalities of the voices. Stripes is Frankie Muniz, and has his innocent precociousness. Dustin Hoffman is an older, small horse named Tucker who provides advice and inspiration, a bit like a cynical Buddha. Snoop Dogg is the family hound, naturally enough, and tends to lie on the porch, chilling out and making sarcastic remarks. Joe Pantoliano is Goose--he made a wrong turn in New Jersey and is now comically trying to pass himself off as a gangster. The flies are David Spade and Steve Harvey, with Spade doing his infamous manic-but-mellow naivety. The human cast is good, too, but they're really ancillary to the animals. Older cinephiles will especially delight in seeing M. Emmet Walsh as a rumpled "track-rat".
As a film primarily targeted at kids and younger teens (although it's certainly not enjoyable only to them--I'm middle-aged and have no kids), Racing Stripes has a couple "moral of the story" subtexts, and as usual, they're themes that not only kids can benefit from internalizing. The primary theme is acceptance of difference. Stripes is unlike any being the other animals have encountered, and naturally he is teased, made fun of, ostracized and even physically abused because of it. The gist of the plot is a demonstration that difference isn't negative. This is often interpreted as a racial theme, but it's really more general than that, applying to all kinds of differences. The other main theme, acceptance of loss and confrontation of the resultant depression, fear and anger, arrives via Walsh.
Cute, funny, heartwarming and a subtly surreal fantasy, Racing Stripes is a great example of why predictability just doesn't matter when it comes to making a good film.
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