Going back to the darker Mary O'Hara novel for inspiration, the updated flick boasts fine performances by Maria Bello, country singer Tim McGraw and young Alison Lohman, but it fails to convey the stirring spirit of the 1943 version.
Although it's squarely aimed at female tweens, with Roddy McDowall's original Ken McLaughlin character having been transformed to a Katy, that target demographic hasn't exactly been champing at the bit for their own movies, if the less than stellar results for such titles as "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" and Aquamarine are of any indication.
While the Fox 2000 production will probably be a theatrical nonstarter, it still could kick up a bit of dust in the DVD corral.
Having returned to the McLaughlin family ranch in remote Wyoming (played extensively by Los Angeles) after being away in private school, Lohman's 16-year-old Katy discovers a wild mustang filly in the mountains whom she names Flicka, which she is told means "beautiful young girl" in Swedish.
Katy is desperate to keep the horse over the objections of her equally strong-willed dad, Rob McGraw, who made an impressive acting debut in 2004's Friday Night Lights), determined to prove that she can turn her into riding material.
For some reason, he just can't see that Katy and Flicka are kindred spirits, even though director Mayer (A Home at the End of the World) and screenwriters Mark Rosenthal & Lawrence Konner (responsible for the remakes of Mighty Joe Young, Planet of the Apes and Desperate Hours) keep hammering that point home relentlessly.
It turns out other things threaten to pull the McLaughlin family apart, including having to sell off the struggling ranch and Katy's brother Howard's (Ryan Kwanten) as-yet-unannounced plans to attend college in Boston rather than follow in his dad's footsteps.
That leaves mom Nell (the always reliable Bello) to try to keep it all together.
She certainly doesn't get much help from Mayer, whose buoyant stage work -- including the Broadway productions of Thoroughly Modern Millie and "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" -- is nowhere to be seen in this bland, overly purposeful production.
Although the performances are uniformly credible, the viewer is never given a real, unspoken sense of that unbridled bond between the girl and the mustang. There's little joy in this glum production, where storms keep gathering at the slightest hint of rain.
Production values are respectable, with cinematographer J. Michael Muro putting his considerable experience working in The Great Outdoors (Open Range, Crash), to good use here, though producer Aaron Zigman's score keeps getting interrupted by pesky songs about running with the wild horses and the weight of the world, just in case we somehow still didn't get the message.
20th Century Fox
Fox 2000 Pictures presents a Gil Netter production
Director: Michael Mayer
Screenwriters: Mark Rosenthal & Lawrence Konner
Based on the novel My Friend Flicka by: Mary O'Hara
Producer: Gil Netter
Director of photography: J. Michael Muro
Production designer: Sharon Seymour
Editor: Andrew Marcus
Costume designer: Molly Maginnis
Music: Aaron Zigman
Katy McLaughlin: Alison Lohman
Rob McLaughlin: Tim McGraw
Nell McLaughlin: Maria Bello
Howard McLaughlin: Ryan Kwanten
Gus: Dallas Roberts
Norbert Rye: Nick Searcy
Running time -- 94 minutes
MPAA rating: PG