“It was a dark and stormy night.” Edward George Bulwer-Lytton’s opening words from Paul Clifford have become synonymous with bad fiction writing. Is it coincidental that it so adequately describes the opening scene in this cinematic tail, er, tale?
In that scene, a traveling circus stops in a driving rainstorm to deal with a flat tire and inadvertently leaves a baby zebra behind. The scared little guy is rescued by Kentucky farmer Nolan Walsh, a single dad and retired champion racehorse trainer. Back at the barn, teen daughter Channing dubs him “Stripes” and the two become the best of friends. Rounding out the cast of characters is a quirky crew of misfit farm animals whose audience-audible banter tells the real story (à la Babe).
The Walsh Farm, incidentally, shares a fence with the Turfway Park racetrack and it doesn’t take long for Stripes to decide he wants to be a racehorse. Undeterred by his pessimistic barnyard peers and formidable bullying by the neighboring champion steeds, Stripes pursues his goal by racing everything in sight, including the postman. Channing, in the meantime, is bent on jumping hurdles—including her dad’s staunch opposition—to become a jockey like her late mother. It’s just a matter of time before girl and beast team up on a grand adventure to win the biggest race of all—the prestigious Kentucky Crown.
Channing is usually an optimistic teen, despite early childhood tragedy. She takes good care of her buddy Stripes and takes her menial job at the racetrack seriously. Mr. Walsh cares deeply about his relationship with his daughter and works hard at creating a healthy family life for the two of them.
The animals are quick with verbal zingers, but when push comes to shove, they���re caring and supportive of one another. [Spoiler Warning] After a long bout of bad behavior, Stripes finally breaks down and apologizes to his offended (but quick-to-forgive) friends. And he makes a touching gesture of gratitude towards his coach, Tucker the Shetland pony, by placing his winner’s wreath around Tucker’s neck after a race. “I wouldn’t be here without you,” he acknowledges.
A movie touchstone is the way it treats the issues of tolerance and prejudice. This tone is highlighted in a scene where Stripes is hurt and bewildered by rejection. “Why won’t they play with me?” he asks Tucker. “Because you’re different and for some horses, different is scary,” he wisely replies.
There’s zero sexual content on the human side of the story, not even a boyfriend on the sidelines for Channing. But there’s a bit of magnetism between animals that comes across in subtly sexualized humor meant to go over the heads of youngsters while amusing their parents. For instance, a horse looking at a newly arrived filly comments, “look at those flanks.”
In an effort to deter Stripes from entering the big race, a gang of equine delinquents ambush him and beat him unconscious; although the actual attack isn’t shown, the audience sees him the next morning lying by a pond covered with muddy hoof prints.
Goose, the fast-talking, big-city pelican is a self-described “hit bird,” lying low at the farm until “the heat is off.” He furthers his organized crime image with slick references to Scarface and Godfather II. Twice he launches air strikes against hapless victims with massive poop shots, first as a demonstration on a rooster, and finally on token “villainess” Miss Dalrymple, chairwoman of the board of Turfway Park. The pelican also flattens a truck tire with his beak and, with a host of furry accomplices, vandalizes a motorcycle (but gets a comeuppance when the motorcycle backfires and scorches his feathers).
On the less serious side, Stripes runs head-on into a tree while racing the mailman, and a fly is sneezed into a wall in a blob of horse snot. Stripes wipes out after taking a hit in the eye from a kicked-up mud clod.
Crude or Profane Language
Not much. Barbs exchanged include “idiot,” “loser,” “track rat” and “freaks.” Some parents won't want young children parroting “dang,” “poop” and “butt.” There’s a sly reference to “booty.” “My lord” is included in a rap. Although technically legitimate in context, scriptwriters' inclusion of the following dialogue is clearly intended as a double entendre: “Are you some kind of an ass?" Goose asks when introduced to Stripes, "'Cause you look like an ass to me."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Other Negative Elements
Flies Buzz and Scuzz provide plenty of fodder for the potty humor mill. In a variation of an old joke, one tells the other to pull his wing as a prelude to flatulating. One exclaims, “I’m in heaven! Bon appetito!” after landing in horse dung, while the other passes gas in someone’s beverage. Elsewhere, turning down an offer for a drink, the filly trots away from a group of admiring horses, quipping, “talk to the tail, boys.” An animal jokes about Goose’s big beak, saying, “Should’ve guessed from the size of that pecker you’d be a big mouth.”
Buzz and Scuzz engage in race tampering when one bites a horse in the haunches. Although the horse was harassing Stripes, two wrongs don’t make a right when the horse rears, tosses his jockey and is eliminated from the race.
Racing Stripes sports a casual attitude toward gambling. When money becomes an obstacle to fulfilled dreams, a “track rat” offers to pay Stripe’s $5,000 Kentucky Crown entry fee from his gambling proceeds (trusting he’ll hit pay dirt when Stripes wins). On the day of the big race, Mr. Walsh accepts high stakes from Miss Dalrymple: if Stripes wins, he takes her prize filly; if Stripes loses, Walsh will sign a lifetime contract to work for her as a trainer.
Channing outwardly rebels against her dad’s clear refusal to let her race. After telling him off, she stomps to the barn and announces to Stripes, “I’m gonna race and no one can stop me.” The next morning, Dad discovers both girl and “horse” are missing and heads over to the racetrack, where zebra paparazzi are having a heyday and the Channing-Stripes team is flying down the track. Dad and Channing get into it again with the same unfortunate result—she jumps on Stripes’ back and rides off to echoes of “don’t do it.” Dad’s no pushover and extracts an ultimatum from Channing: either give Stripes away or promise never to ride him again. (When he later comes around and asks Channing’s forgiveness, it would have been nice if she’d reciprocated for her own defiant behavior.)
Unlike most animal movie heroes, Stripes demonstrates a real “me” mentality that results in our caring very little about him by the time the show is over. For instance, the once-cocky zebra is humiliated when Mr. Walsh turns him into a plow horse, refusing to cooperate until the farm animals point out he’ll benefit from the strength training. Then he throws his back into his work. When confronted by his friends about his clandestine off-track racing, Stripes lies and denies it. He becomes self-pitying and ornery after learning he’s a zebra, pushing everyone away, including the audience.
Racing Stripes is at best a patchwork tribute of sorts to cinematic successes and pop culture icons. It’s a little bit Babe, a little bit Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, but it fails to retain the enduring qualities of either of those family classics. The barnyard banter could have been read off game cards in the Pop Culture version of Trivial Pursuit. (Some of the answers are “Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder’s ‘Ebony & Ivory,’” “Field of Dreams,” “Aerosmith’s ‘Walk This Way’” and “Elvis.”)
Adults will roll their eyes at such unimaginative construction. Children, however, will likely be captivated from the moment they lay eyes on the rain-soaked, frightened zebra and stay hooked through all the cheesy lingo to the predictable finish line. That's why it's necessary to note (again) that the film warranted a PG rating for lots of crude physical humor and scatological jokes. And its primary characters exhibit more than a couple of (uncorrected) character flaws. That'll force families to clean a bit of mud off their shoes afterwards if they decide to take a turn around the track with Racing Stripes.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Hayden Panettiere as Channing Walsh; Bruce Greenwood as Nolan Walsh; Wendie Malick as Clara Dalrymple; M. Emmet Walsh as Woodzie; voices of Frankie Muniz as Stripes; Dustin Hoffman as Tucker; Whoopi Goldberg as Franny; Joshua Jackson as Sir Trenton’s Pride; Mandy Moore as Sandy; Joe Pantoliano as Goose; David Spade as Scuzz; Steve Harvey as Buzz; Patrick Stewart as Sir Trenton
Frederik Du Chau ( )