Imagine my surprise, shock almost, when I saw Racing Stripes, which seemed to be a throwback to the child-oriented films of the 1940s and 1950s. Sure there’s a National Velvet quality to the picture, but it uses today’s technology (talking animals a la Babe) to take its story to a different level. This children’s movie really is a horse of a different color. It’s about a zebra who gets separated from its traveling circus, ends up in the care of a young Kentucky farm girl, and is trained to eventually run a race against some mighty thoroughbreds. The plot is pure fantasy, but the film relishes its sweet simplicity to the point that I think even the most hidebound curmudgeon will be charmed by it. There hasn’t been a movie like this in years. It wears its innocence proudly. In December, I was one of a number of journalists, critics, and entertainment reporters who were invited to head to Los Angeles to interview some of the people connected with the film. The junket was held at the Park Hyatt Hotel in Century City and by a stroke of luck, it was a hot and sunny period in L.A., a respite between weeks of cold and rainy weather prior to that weekend and thunderously nightmarish storms to come.

Racing Stripes has two sides to it. There’s the live action side starring Bruce Greenwood as the farming father to his daughter named Charming (acted by Hayden Panttiere), the lass who takes in the lost zebra. There’s a wise and grizzled old race-track tout played by M. Emmet Walsh, and every movie needs a villain, so there’s a nasty wealthy landowner and racehorse veteran. She’s played by Buffalo’s own Wendie Malick, recently one of the stars of television’s Just Shoot Me and Frasier.

The talking animals and animatronic side of the film feature the voices of Whoopi Goldberg as a smart old goat, Joe Pantoliano as a gangstelike transplanted New Jersey pelican, Steve Harvey and David Spade as hilarious wisecracking flies, Jeff Foxworthy as a dimwitted rooster, Dustin Hoffman as a Shetland pony, Snoop Dogg as a bloodhound, and Mandy Moore as a lovely filly with eyes for Stripes, the name given to the zebra. The voice of the zebra belongs to television’s Malcolm In The Middle, Frankie Muniz.

As we heard a number of times in Los Angeles, more often than not the voiceover actors would be working alone in a sound room creating their characters without benefit of interaction with other cast members. It’s an interesting process that might prove disconcerting to some. Harvey and Spade, being a fly team, did come together and as Harvey told us, read one take with the script and then ad-libbed to their hearts’ content. Equally interesting is the fact that the voice people would be acting out their roles watching scenes that were shot in South Africa, of all places. That country’s farmland stands in for Kentucky, and if I hadn’t told you, you never would have taken notice of it. Racing Stripes is an American movie, shot in South Africa, set in Kentucky, with a seamless blend of real people and talking animals, the voices of which were provided at separate times by actors working all over the globe. In case you doubt the internationalism of making movies, the director, Frederik Du Chau was born in Belgium, but lives in Los Angeles. The screenwriter is a former professional baseball player, David F. Schmidt, who was in the Boston Red Sox farm system and briefly played in the majors before an injury forced him out.

Does it come together? It does. The film is cute and even contains a number of messages, one of which was summed up by comedian Harvey who told us about his son’s reaction to hearing that his father was going to be in the movie. If the comic wasn’t sold on the idea, his son was. “He wants to know about everything I do,” said Harvey. “When he heard I was doing a movie about a zebra who wants to be a race horse, he said to me ‘didn’t you tell me that if you put your mind to it you can do anything?’ Well, that’s the flick right there. My little seven-year old figured that out. He said ‘Dad, you said can’t say can’t.’”

Pantoliano, a fellow who has made a name for himself playing goons, also wasn’t certain about taking the chance to add his big-city twist to the movie due to the odd nature of voiceover work. He explained that the movie was more fun to watch than to work on. “It was way more fun to watch. I was intimidated. I had no vision. I couldn’t see how it would come together. You just have to take a leap faith. You feel kind of awkward. When you’re doing a movie, you’ve worked on the character. You go in your trailer, you put on the clothes, you put on the make-up; you put on the hair, whatever. You’ve created and built a character so you can hide behind him. But this is different.” Pantoliano said that with Racing Stripes, it all began with an explanation of the backstory and who the character is. “The discovery process starts from a cartoon rendition of what he’s gonna look like. And then you read all of the scenes and all of the dialogue. And they use that as a blueprint. And then five months later they’ve gone off to South Africa and shot for ninety days and gotten your animal to do something that was accidental, so they write dialogue for that. Then you’re adding that. And then you start seeing it and they’re doing playback and you start seeing the scenes and you see the pelican flying and you see a guy holding a bird and opening up the mouth. And from there it starts to evolve.”

The human and animal components of the picture compelled youngster Pantierre to work with zebras, a decidedly unusual experience. It seems that the black and white critters make a strange noise. Eight were used to play the part of Stripes. Pantierre went into the production thinking that zebras “were just horses that have stripes. They’re not, at all,” she said. “They have totally different personalities. And you hear them calling back and forth to each other. It’s the funniest noise I’ve ever heard in my life.” Muniz, who works with one of the best ensembles on television spent his time working on the feature virtually alone. For one brief 30-minute period, he read lines with Dustin Hoffman, but except for the director feeding him his dialogue, Muniz created his character’s personality alone in front of a microphone. He did most of his work in Los Angeles. He noted that “it would have been awesome if you could have gotten everybody together to do every scene together, but some people live in New York and I did my first couple of sessions in London.” Muniz enjoyed playing Stripes. “He’s a very persistent zebra and tries very hard. He doesn’t ever give up so there’s a great message there. If you really want something, you just have to keep working to make it happen.”

Not unlike the Boston Red Sox, for whom screenwriter Schmidt was a catcher, if only for a short period. He was thrilled and overwhelmed by the team’s World Series victory. This is his first produced screenplay. After baseball, Schmidt sold insurance, and he’s even delivered and installed kitchen cabinets for Sears. As he put it, “there’s a little bit of Stripes in me. The desire to succeed is solid and you just can’t give up.” In Racing Stripes, the theme of prejudice and overcoming obstacles is strong. Director Du Chau stressed this when he commented that “no matter who you are or what age you are, regardless of your gender or what part of the world you’re from, everyone can relate to being different. This is very much a universal story.”

Racing Stripes is a clever little movie about the can-do spirit. It succeeds as a comedy and adventure for kids. Families should love it. By Michael Calleri ALT Movie Editor

When you think about movies aimed at children, you realize that a lot of films are filled with anger and vulgarity, swearing and violence. Somehow, innocence and wonder have taken a back seat to cruelty and creepy behavior