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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

eFilmcritic Arhive: "Racing Stripes" (2005)

You like zebras? I mean, do you REALLY like ‘em? I’ve always been rather neutral on them myself. They don’t exactly fill me with pride and wonder, but I guess they’re okay at what they do and I guess they do make a point of distinguishing themselves from ilk of their likeness. A zebra is a zebra and nothing else as far as I’m concerned. I’m sure I offended many passionate zebraists out there with my harsh middle-of-the-road stance on them, but I won’t apologize for it. They can race, they can share land with other farm animals and they can give little girls a ride to work. But please don’t make them talk anymore. That I don’t like.

Or maybe I don’t like that the makers of the zebra racing movie “Racing Stripes” hired Frankie Muniz, from TV’s “Malcolm in the Middle,” to do the voice. With this vocal performance, he has tarnished the image of the medium-mighty zebra and turned it into a whiny Negative Nancy. As the lead character, an abandoned zebra named Stripes, Muniz turns what could have been a lovable animal character into a spastic, one-note petting zoo lacky with the charm of an 18-year-old upper-class suburbanite who holds a grudge against his WASP parents for not getting him the Ferrari he wanted for Christmas.

That’s not what zebras are all about. Even I know that. But “Racing Stripes” is about this zebra, so we’ll all just have to accept that and move on. The story follows almost the exact same pattern as 1995’s “Babe,” right down to the supporting characters but without any of the wit or charm. Stripes gets abandoned on the road by circus freaks and soon gets adopted by a widowed father, Nolan Walsh (Bruce Greenwood), and his 14-year-old daughter Channing (Hayden Panettiere). Time passes and the zebra grows up big and strong, but with the voice of Frankie Muniz.

Stripes makes many friends at the farm, including a white horse named Sandy (Mandy Moore), a elder horse named Tucker (Dustin Hoffman), a goat named Franny (Whoopi Goldberg) and a hippie, human mailman (Caspar Poyck). Stripes sees horses training for a big race and decides he wants to race too, but of course he’s a zebra and will look foolish racing against Clydesdales. Of course, we all believe in him because it’s not about what you look like on the outside, but what you feel deep down inside and stuff.

Observing all of this without the benefit (or displeasure) of hearing these animals talk is a town drunk named Woodsy (M. Emmet Walsh). He watches wistfully as Channing rides Stripes all around the racetrack dreaming of a day when zebras will be accepted the world over. He encourages her by saying, “You move just like your momma used to,” whatever that creepy statement is supposed to mean. Also observing from afar are two wacky horseflies named Buzz (Steve Harvey) and Scuzz (David Spade) who spend most of the movie making references to bad rap songs. Speaking of rap, there’s also a lazy, good-for-nothing dog character who says “hizzle,” voiced by…let’s move on.

Also on hand to make sure more jokes go way over the heads of children is a goose named Goose, voiced by Joe Pantoliano. This makes the second attempt by Hollywood at getting kids hooked on “The Sopranos” and “Godfather” movies. I don’t think it’s working. In fact, I remember sitting through “Shark Tale” many months back in a packed house with many of the kids standing up, turning to their parents and demanding to know, “What the heck are they talking about?” Just let the goose poop on the bad guys at the end and keep it at that, capiche?

So, that’s “Racing Stripes,” a charmless “Babe” re-write with tired pop culture references, unimaginative puns and distracting, star-powered voice work, not to mention songs by Sting AND Bryan Adams! Zebras deserve better even if they haven’t made an effort to show why they belong here on this planet. I guess we should just accept them as the Switzerland of the animal kingdom and move on. I’ll try not to let Frankie Muniz’s voice do a pop-up ad in my head every time I look at one. It’s not the zebra’s fault. They can’t help it. They just want to eat, sleep and be left alone like the rest of us. For God’s sake, they’re zebras. Let’s just leave it at that and get on with our lives.

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