January is the cruelest month, at least for moviegoers wanting substantial fare. The first few weeks of the new year are often a dumping ground for pictures whose own distributors have meager hopes. ("White Noise" or "Coach Carter," anyone?)
"Racing Stripes" is the kind of toothpick-thin fantasy that inevitably opens at this time of year, unless its studio holds it for the summertime silly season. Young kids will get hearty chuckles from its blend of mild vulgarity, goofiness, and sheer inanity. Anyone older than about 11 should probably take a pass.
The title refers to the main character: a zebra who's inadvertently abandoned by a traveling circus and adopted by a teenager who comes to love him dearly. With reluctant help from her father, she decides to make the newly christened Stripes into a worthy competitor for the horses whose owners race them on a nearby track.
So far, the plot is plausible, if not exactly probable. What pushes reality out of the movie altogether is that its animals talk with each other in almost every scene.
That's how we learn many of the story's most important facts, including the peculiar circumstance that Stripes has no idea he's a zebra, but thinks he's really a racehorse. It's also how we get acquainted with the other animals' personalities, from a snooty steed who expects to win the upcoming championship to a pair of flies who play a mischievous part in the sort-of-suspenseful climax.
Like most movies aimed at the younger set, "Racing Stripes" has easily absorbable lessons to teach: Be yourself, never stop trying if your goal is worthwhile, and so forth.
I'd be happier if the film didn't strain so hard to turn its animal characters into imitation humans, though. The talking animals of classic animations like, say, "Dumbo" and "Pinocchio" are dreamworld creations through and through. But the computer-enhanced critters of "Racing Stripes," ordinary looking beasts except for the way their lips and mouths mimic human faces, dwell in a creepy zone between real nature and high-tech deception. While this is harmless for adults, it could give misleading ideas to little kids. Ditto for the movie as a whole.
• Rated PG; contains mild vulgarity.