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Sweet ‘Racing Stripes’ comes up short

Frankie Muniz provides the voice of a zebra who thinks he's a racehorse
/ Source: The Associated Press

Dismissing “Racing Stripes” as a paltry retread of “Babe” would be mean, and it’s hard to be mean to a movie that’s so well-intentioned.

The similarities are awfully hard to miss, though — as are the differences.

Whereas the talking little piggie of “Babe” wanted to be a sheepherding dog a decade ago, the talking baby zebra of “Racing Stripes” wants to be a racehorse. Actually, he thinks he is a racehorse, and is devastated to learn otherwise when he grows up (and is voiced eagerly by “Malcolm in the Middle” star Frankie Muniz).

Like Babe, Stripes the zebra lives on a farm, where he arrived after horse trainer Nolan Walsh (Bruce Greenwood) found the former circus animal abandoned on a country road and brought him home.

And like Babe, Stripes is surrounded by a menagerie of computer-enhanced creatures who crack wise — only here their voices are provided by a much higher-profile assemblage of celebrity talent, a joke in itself in Belgian director Frederik Du Chau’s movie.

Whoopi Goldberg provides the voice of Franny the goat, who keeps all the other animals in line. Jeff Foxworthy voices Reggie the rooster (though he’s essentially doing his you-might-be-a-redneck act, wearing feathers atop a barn). Snoop Dogg growls lazily a couple of times as a bloodhound named Lightning.

But the best of all is Dustin Hoffman, who sounds like he’s having a ball goofing around as a cranky Shetland pony (with a heart of gold, of course) named Tucker. This is the first and probably the last time you will see Hoffman and Snoop in the same movie together, but based on the critical praise Hoffman has received for his wacky work in “Meet the Fockers,” anything seems possible.

What “Racing Stripes” offers in star power, though, it lacks in heart. “Babe,” which never hit a false note, will make even grown-ups cry every time. This new film, meanwhile, is strangely distant, with its superficial platitudes about tolerance and daring to go after big dreams.

Stripes wants to race, and the farmer’s daughter, Channing (Hayden Panettiere), wants to be a jockey, but her overly protective father won’t allow it following her mother’s death in a riding accident. Together they sneak their way into the prestigious Kentucky Open, where Stripes competes against the spoiled thoroughbred Trenton’s Pride (voiced by Joshua Jackson from “Dawson’s Creek” with appropriate frat-boy swagger).

The enthusiastic young zebra gets help from a filly named Sandy (Mandy Moore), a New Jersey pelican named Goose (Joe Pantoliano, relegated to regurgitating every famous line from every mob movie, ever) and a couple of flies named Buzz (Steve Harvey) and Scuzz (David Spade), whose painfully repetitive routine consists of singing songs like “U Can’t Touch This,” passing gas and wallowing in piles of poop. (The proliferation of scatological humor will crack the kiddies up, but prevent adults from enjoying the film completely.)

Pantoliano’s shtick also feels hackneyed, especially after the animated, mob-themed “Shark Tale,” but he does offer a great line when he mistakes the zebra for an ex-con because of his stripes.

As for the human beings, they’re much better than you might expect in a feel-good kids flick. The underappreciated Greenwood, so solid in movies such as “Thirteen Days” in which he played John F. Kennedy, brings warmth and resonance to the role. He also has a believable father-daughter dynamic in his scenes with Panettiere, who has turned into a strong, beautiful young actress following roles in “Remember the Titans” and “Ally McBeal.”

But too often David Schmidt’s script forces the humans in the movie, like M. Emmet Walsh as a grizzled track rat, to utter lines like, “That zebra really wants to race — I can see it!”

It’s ideal for kids, though, and its heart is in the right place — which almost makes it a winner.