Warning! This movie may not be appropriate for all adults. It's loaded with scatological humor — poop gags and flatulence jokes. At a recent preview screening, little kids of all ages were laughing hardest and loudest at these scenes, while their parents, judging from their lack of reaction, seemed embarrassed.

But this talking zebra movie isn't aimed at parents. It's going straight for the hearts of 6-to-10-year-olds, and because of simplistic storytelling and lots of cute animals doing things animals can't possibly do, it's wildly successful at reaching them.

It opens on a dark and stormy night in Kentucky. A circus caravan crew stops to fix a flat, and accidentally leaves a baby zebra behind. But all is OK, as single father Farmer Walsh (Bruce Greenwood) drives by, sees the wet and shaking foal, takes it home and immediately hears his daughter Channing (Hayden Panettiere) utter those magical words, "Can we keep him, Daddy?"

As father and daughter leave the barn, the words turn even more magical, as they're spoken by the other resident animals who come over to check out their new guest, all a-chatter. This early sequence is going to startle — in a positive way — the youngest viewers and, due to its technical expertise, is going to make those grumpy adults in the audience sit up and gawk. The computer-assisted visuals of animals' mouths moving was terrific in the similarly themed and more charming Babe, but the effect has now been perfected, and anyone watching this is going to believe that animals can talk.

Of course, in a movie of this ilk, most of what's said is a little too cutesy. Young colts call each other "dude." One horse asks the newly named Stripes if he's "feeling his oats." But the film isn't as silly as the preview trailer suggests. Two constantly laughing and wisecracking horseflies (both computer animated), named Buzz and Scuzz (Steve Harvey and David Spade), are at the center of the "naughty" bits, and they do wear out their welcome pretty quickly. But there is a well-placed and clearly drawn message about tolerance that should be understood up by most young viewers.

Stripes has had no contact with other animals when he comes to live on the Walsh farm, but he's fascinated by the thoroughbred horses being trained nearby, and thinks that he, too is a race horse — one that just happens to look a little different. But those stuck-up, high-falutin' horses treat him like an outsider, and won't run with him. At a point late in the film when Stripes is finally told that he's a zebra, not a racehorse, he flips out, and it's his barnyard animal friends to the rescue, to let him know that he's the little zebra who could.

It's a tossup as to why most of the animal characters work so well. Yes, the technical achievements are amazing, but the project also attracted some excellent voice talent. There's mostly funny bickering between the Shetland Pony Tucker (Dustin Hoffman) and the goat Franny (Whoopi Goldberg), and well-timed ramblings by a pelican named Goose (Joe Pantoliano). Other animal characters don't fare so well, including Stripes and his romantic interest, Sandy, who are given wooden readings by Frankie Muniz and Mandy Moore. On the people side of things, scruffy Bruce Greenwood plays his part with believable concern and puts on a passable Kentucky accent, but big-cheeked Hayden Panettiere falls in and out of her accent, and can only manage gigantic smiles or worried frowns for expressions.

A big race is the film's set piece. It's not very well constructed, but there certainly is some action. Every kid will be cheering for the zebra — but they'll be laughing more at the naughty stuff.

Publication date: 1/13/04

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