When Joe Pantoliano is a strung-out and combed-over dinner-theater actor pondering the slow, inexorable ebb of his career, he may well decide the turning point came when he played a Mafia pelican named Goose. Hiding out from avenging “hit birds” in a Kentucky barn full of wisecracking draft animals, this drab but shrill character is typical of the cross purposes that stymie family-oriented flick Racing Stripes. Goose’s fatuous riffs on Cosa Nostra lore (“Just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in!”) clearly belong to another, even worse movie—but then, so does a good half of Racing Stripes. Blame it on the rapid advancement of cinema technology. In the days of, say, the young Elizabeth Taylor, we might have had a pleasingly simple story about Channing (Hayden Panettiere), a fresh-faced farm girl who discovers that Stripes, the abandoned zebra she adopted, is as fast as any racehorse. We could have predicted that particular movie’s course from starting gate to finish line, but we might have had the leisure to appreciate director and co-writer Frederik Du Chau’s unfussy way with a story, or the way he borrows equally from Babe, National Velvet, and Rocky. We might also have enjoyed the grace notes of undervalued actors such as Bruce Greenwood, who plays Channing’s wary dad, and M. Emmet Walsh, who wears the part of a grizzled racetrack habitué like a mangy sneaker. But sadly, in the age of razzle-dazzle animatronics and CGI, the plucky little zebra (voiced by Malcolm in the Middle’s Frankie Muniz) must himself take center stage—and be girt ’round with a Greek chorus of jabbering fauna. Ranging from funny (Steve Harvey and David Spade as ebony and ivory horseflies) to tedious (Whoopi Goldberg as a pontificatin’ she-goat), the vocal performances are generally harmless enough; the main problem is that adding a computer-generated pie-hole to an equine’s long, stony-eyed head doesn’t make it any more emotionally resonant or interesting to behold. Nor does it add much luster to the dog voiced by (hee-yuk!) Snoop Dogg or the rooster screeched by (wait for it) Jeff Foxworthy. Indeed, after staring into all those emptily flapping yaps, you may find yourself longing for the comparatively expressive mugging of Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp—or even of Mr. Ed, who probably would’ve taken care of Goose with a single well-timed kick. Of course, those were the days when horses could really act.—Louis Bayard

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