A “Babe”-licious mix of human thesps and CGI-tweaked animals, “Racing Stripes” is poised to run a profitable sprint through megaplex tracks before it hits its stride as a long-distance homevid frontrunner. Feel-good family-skewing pic about a plucky zebra who competes with thoroughbreds is frisky and funny enough to please pre-teens, but still witty enough to amuse even those parents who don’t recognize Dustin Hoffman, Whoopi Goldberg and other notables among the unseen vocal talents.
Working from serviceable script credited to David F. Schmidt, helmer Frederik Du Chau — whose only previous directing credit is the animated “Quest for Camelot” (1998) — strikes a predictable but mostly pleasing balance between rib-tickling and heart-tugging elements.
During a dark and stormy night on a rural Kentucky back road, former horse trainer Nolan Walsh (Bruce Greenwood) finds a baby zebra that was inadvertently abandoned by a traveling circus. Nolan brings the little critter home fully intending to turn him over to authorities. But Nolan’s young daughter, Channing (Hayden Panettiere), names the zebra Stripes and begs permission to raise the four-legged foundling as a pet. Nolan reluctantly agrees.
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Readily accepted by other barnyard residents, Stripes (persuasively voiced by Frankie Muniz) comes of age among such colorful characters as Tucker (Dustin Hoffman), a cranky Shetland Pony; Franny (Whoopi Goldberg), a sage goat; Reggie (Jeff Foxworthy), a dim-bulb rooster; and Lightning (Snoop Dog), an ineptly named lazy-bones dog. But Stripes is drawn to the racetrack at a neighboring estate run by snooty horse breeder Clara Dalrymple (Wendie Malick). Woodzie (M. Emmet Walsh), a grizzled race track tout, thinks the zebra has the right stuff for racing, and encourages Nolan to train Stripes for the upcoming Kentucky Open. But Nolan abandoned racing after the death of his wife in a riding accident. Years later, he’s still reluctant to resume his former trade and even less willing to allow Channing to train as a jockey. In the end, though, Channing gets a chance to ride Stripes in the Kentucky Open – with a little help from Tucker and a couple of smart-alecky horseflies named Buzz (Steve Harvey) and Scuzz (David Spade).
Pic does a fine job of enabling auds to willingly suspend disbelief as various quadrupeds and winged insects converse. (Only the horseflies are completely computer-generated; other creatures are real beasts enhanced with animated lip-movements.) Kudos to a world-class production team that includes animal trainer Karl Lewis Miller (“Babe,” “Beethoven”) and special effects supervisors Kent Houston, Dion Hatch, Eric Rosenfeld. Other tech values, including well-chosen pop tunes by Sting and Bryan Adams, contribute to overall cross-generational appeal.
Among the vocal talents, Hoffman makes the most engaging impression as the perpetually grumpy and under-appreciated pony. But Joe Pantoliano gets some of the biggest laughs as Goose, a bellicose pelican from New Jersey who claims to be hiding from vengeful mobsters. Parents likely will guffaw even louder than their kids whenever the tough-talking bird snarls dialogue lifted from classic mob-themed pix.
Spade and Harvey are stuck with a few too many poop jokes, the prime reason for PG rating, but they, too, have their moments.
With so many scene-stealing co-stars, human players deserve credit simply for not being entirely upstaged. Greenwood and Panettiere infuse their roles with appealing sincerity, while Walsh is appropriately rumpled and crusty. Malick deftly stops short of going completely over the top, and even manages to spike her cartoonish villainy with a hint of saucy hauteur that recalls the late, great Rosalind Russell.
Although set in Kentucky, “Racing Stripes” was shot on location in South Africa. Presumably, it’s easier to find competitive zebras in that part of the world.