Racing Stripes

When I wasn’t paying attention to what was actually going on in “Racing Stripes” — and if you saw it, you wouldn’t blame me — I spent time marveling at how far the technology of making animals appear to talk has come since “Babe.”

The animals in “Racing Stripes” talk as if to the manner born. It isn’t just their lips that move, but their whole jaws and throats, too. It looks pretty much the way I expect it would look if animals really could talk.

But would they say the things they say in this movie? I guess maybe they would; some animals aren’t very smart. “Racing Stripes” feels like the films Disney used to make, the ones about mules that kicked field goals, or dogs that practiced law, or lions that developed cold fusion, or whatever. It is about a zebra that wants to run races — which, when you think about it, isn’t exactly an absurd idea, since zebras are related to horses, and horses run races all the time. I mean, it’s not like the zebra wants to drive a bus.

Anyway, this particular zebra has the voice of Frankie Muniz, and his name is Stripes. As a colt, he fell out of a circus truck during a rainstorm and was taken in by a kindly Kentucky farmer named Nolan Walsh (Bruce Greenwood), who let his daughter Channing (Hayden Panettiere) raise him along with the other, more typical barnyard animals. You’d think the sudden absence of a newborn zebra would elicit some response from the circus, like an extensive search and probably some news coverage, but I guess then we wouldn’t have a movie.

The Walsh farm is just over the hill from a racetrack, where Channing works part-time for the wealthy and, need you ask, evil owner Clara Dalrymple (Wendie Malick). Mr. Walsh used to train horses to race there but has not done so since his wife was killed in a racing accident, which must have been one HELL of an accident. I mean, how often are jockeys killed in the line of duty? Was the horse gasoline-powered or something?

But we will not get anywhere if I keep wasting time making jokes. Stripes sees the horses in the nearby fields and wants to race like they do. His goal is met mostly with support by the other animals, which include a dwarfish old horse (voice of Dustin Hoffman), a goat (Whoopi Goldberg), a rooster (Jeff Foxworthy) and a pelican (Joe Pantoliano), the latter being tied up with the animal Mafia and currently in hiding (in case you wondered why there was a pelican on a farm in Kentucky).

Alas, the horses that Stripes converses with through the fence have a racist streak; they do not believe a black-and-white striped horse has any place alongside the monochromatic ones. But Stripes is undaunted. He and his barnyard friends conspire to get Channing to realize that Stripes wants to race, a difficult task, since they can only talk to each other and not to her. But you may rest assured that the message is conveyed, that Stripes becomes a racezebra, and that all the appropriate lessons are learned in the end.

It’s a pleasant enough little movie, occasionally witty but mostly average. I would recommend it to families with children except for one thing: the presence of two flies, voiced by Steve Harvey and David Spade, whose sole purpose in the film is to be disgusting. Flies love trash, you see. They also love feces. So there’s a moment when they fall into a pile of poop and begin eating it, proclaiming their love for poop as they do so. Another time, they make fart bubbles in someone’s coffee cup. When you see jokes like this in a family comedy, it is a sign that the filmmakers are not confident in their product and have resorted to cheap, easy laughs. “Racing Stripes” would not have been a winner otherwise, but it would have been tolerable. Including this material reduces the film’s enjoyability rather than raising it.

C (1 hr., 42 min.; PG, a little very mild profanity, some crude humor.)