An underappreciated art, vocal performance can make or break an animated film, as well as a live-action movies that "stars" talking animals. It's Eddie Murphy's exuberant line readings -- not what he says but how he says it -- that confer personality upon the garrulous Donkey in Shrek. And the sheep-herding Babe would be just another pig if not for the astute casting of the practically unknown Christine Cavanaugh.
The importance of the voice actor becomes painfully apparent while watching Racing Stripes, a potentially cute family picture about a zebra who longs to be a racing horse. Set in Kentucky, the film concerns a baby zebra, accidentally left behind when the circus leaves town, who is raised by farmer Nolan Walsh (Bruce Greenwood) and his daughter Channing (Hayden Panettiere). Their farm is located next to the Turfway Park racetrack, where the prestigious Kentucky Open is held every year.
Nolan used to be a top horse trainer -- he worked for Turfway's steely owner, Clara Dalrymple (Wendie Malick) -- but he turned his back on the sport when his wife was thrown and killed while competing. He doesn't want his daughter to even ride a horse, much less pursue her dream of a racing career.
Stripes, as Channing names the family's new addition, is quickly welcomed by the farm's more traditional animals, including an old Shetland pony named Tucker (voiced by Dustin Hoffman) and a nanny goat named Franny (Whoopi Goldberg). Gazing at the prancing thoroughbreds on the Turfway side of the fence, Stripes (voiced by Frankie Muniz) naturally assumes that he, too, is a racing horse -- and he dreams of getting the chance to prove his worth. Neither Franny nor Tucker has the heart to correct him.
Without her father's knowledge, Channing, who works as a stable girl at Turfway, starts riding Stripes and discovers how fast he is. If the two of them are going to fulfill their shared dream, however, she must somehow convince her father to let her race. And Stripes, who is crestfallen when he discovers that he is a zebra and not a racehorse, must find a way to overcome his sudden sense of inferiority.
It's difficult to tell whether the film's problem lies with the acting or the directing, but the result is the same in either event: Few of the animals convey any distinctive personality. And the ones that do -- Joe Pantoliano as a pelican named Goose; Jeff Foxworthy as an annoying rooster; Steve Harvey and David Spade as flies -- make a negative impression. As the fast-talking "hit man" bird who is all bravado (and pure caricature), Pantoliano proves particularly grating. Foxworthy isn't far behind. Flies Buzz and Scuzz are annoying for their antics as well as their voices. Most of the humor surrounding them is scatological and very, very juvenile.
The trouble with the voices isn't the digital computer work, which is handled smoothly and convincingly. The animals look as if they are talking; they just don't sound like it. The two colts who make fun of Stripes have interchangeable voices. The adult horses sound equally generic. In fact, none of the animals exudes much personality -- including Stripes, directly owing to undistinguished vocal performances.
And it's not just the four-legged characters. Both Greenwood (who played JFK in the Cuban Missile Crisis drama Thirteen Days) and child actress Panettiere (most recently of Raising Helen) have done unusually fine work in the past. Here, however, they are flat-out boring, as dull and personality-free as the animals. It's almost as if the film's director, Belgian-born Frederik du Chau, instructed the human actors to downplay their parts in order not to upstage the animals. Compare that to Babe, in which James Cromwell imbued Father Hoggett with a low-key but highly distinctive and appealing personality that worked in perfect concert with the animal characters.
Babe, the Shrek films and The Incredibles delighted both children and adults by providing humor for each group. In fact, the only criticism one might direct at those films is that they were geared more for adults than kids. Racing Stripes, on the other hand, concentrates solely on kids. That wouldn't be a problem if, like the horrid Barney movies, the comedy proved kid-friendly. But Racing Stripes doesn't offer much entertainment value even for tots. Despite a workable premise and acceptable story line, this horse -- er, zebra -- fails to win, place or show.