'Babe' with Stripes
Back in 1995, the hugely popular Babe used a novel mixture of real animals, robots and computer animation to create a farmyard of convincing talking animals. It featured a pig who had to overcome intolerance and discrimination to reach his goal of being a sheep-herding pig. The makers of Racing Stripes have taken the same recipe, removed most of the charm and humour, and Americanised it by adding an A-list voice cast for the farm animals.
The story is about a zebra called Stripes (voiced by Frankie Muniz), who dreams of being a champion race horse. Ridden by a 16-year-old girl (Hayden Panettiere), and with a whole farmyard of animal friends cheering him on, Stripes must overcome all the odds (and several mean and scary thoroughbred race horses) to win the Kentucky Open.
The film sticks so closely to Babe’s winning formula that Stripes even has a grizzly, old trainer -- a Shetland pony voiced by Dustin Hoffman (his casting as a miniature horse a dig at his diminutive stature?). And of course Stripes’s other big obstacle to overcome before he can win the race is a lack of self-esteem. As always with this kind of motivational film, the message is that you can win the race/competition if you “just believe in yourself” etc. You know the rest.
Apart from blatantly ripping off a box office smash (and multiple Oscar-nominated) hit, the other main problem with Racing Stripes is that it's not funny enough. Only about fifty percent of the jokes get a laugh -- and some are just groan-inducingly bad. A comedy duo consisting of a tiny horse and a witty goat voiced by Dustin Hoffman and Whoopi Goldberg respectively should be absolutely hilarious. Whoopi quips lines like “Let’s kick some horse-flank. C’mon y’all” with admirable gusto, but sadly the humour is only intermittently funny. In fact the film’s funniest characters are the other comedy duo -- two wise-crackin’, break-dancin’ flies with a penchant for filthy toilet humour. When dung-loving flies are funnier than Dustin and Whoopi, you know there’s something wrong.
It’s not really clear who Racing Stripes is aimed at. The comedy is not savvy enough to appeal to adults but also not laugh-out-loud silly enough for young kids. Teenage girls who love horses seem to be the most obvious target market.
The movie tries to be too many things -- inspirational family adventure, buddy comedy and gross-out comedy all at the same time. The makers even manage to squeeze in a romance (Stripes woos a young horse from a neighbouring farm) and a sub-plot about a pelican on the run from the mob, allowing for plenty of jokes about gangster stereotypes.
While the film’s messages about tolerance and acceptance of outsiders, as well as achieving your goals through self-motivation, are important and do have their place in movies for youngsters, they have been done a thousand times before in much better films than this. Although Racing Stripes offers mildly diverting innocent fun, it's also unambitious and instantly forgettable.
(Released by Warner Bros. and rated "PG" for mild crude humor and some language. Racing Stripes opened in Australia on January 6, 2005.)