The old grey mare, she ain’t what she used to be. The horse in this modernization of the Mary O’Hara book that served as the basis for a trio of movies in the 1940s–“My Friend Flicka,” “Thunderhead, Son of Flicka” and “Green Grass of Wyoming”–as well as a short-lived TV series in the fifties–may be black, but the rest of the old lyric certainly applies. “Flicka” is filmed in wide-screen format for big-screen viewing, but it would barely pass muster on a family-friendly cable network.
It’s also been altered to conform more easily to today’s sensibilities. Originally O’Hara’s stories, and the first two movies, were about a boy (Roddy McDowall), his hard-to-control colt, and his authoritarian father (Preston Foster). Here the protagonist is a young girl, Katy (Alison Lohman), who pines after her family’s Wyoming ranch while away at a posh prep school. Returning for summer vacation, she’s welcomed by loving parents Rob and Nell (Tim McGraw and Maria Bello), who are struggling to keep the place afloat as a breeding-place for quarter horses (and who are troubled by her academic problems), and her older brother Howard (Ryan Kwanten), who’s put his own wanderlust on hold to meet his dad’s need for someone to help him work the ranch.
While riding the range Katy encounters a wild mustang that frightens away a threatening mountain lion. Rob, who fears that the animal will spook his herd, ropes it with the intention of selling it to a nearby rodeo, but Katy persuades him not to and begins trying to tame the horse secretly against her dad’s wishes. When he finds out about it, he does sell Flicka, but Katy connives with a reluctant Howard to win her back by competing in the rodeo’s wild horse riding contest. The upshot is that Katy and Flicka find themselves out in the wilderness in a terrible storm, and that lion reappears, and both rider and ridden are seriously endangered, maybe even…well, there’s no need to go on. It would be unconscionable for a family movie like this to end in lasting tragedy, and so it will come as no surprise that while the details must remain unrevealed here, everything turns out well for everybody.
Everybody except the audience, that is. The sad fact is that “Flicka” makes “Dreamer,” the last mediocre girl-and-her-horse movie, seem almost brilliant by comparison. There are several reasons for this. One is that as played by Lohman, Katy is a very irritating young girl–irresponsible and shrill. Another is that McGraw not only reveals all too clearly his limitations as an actor (his small role in “Friday Night Lights” seems to have been a fluke), but does a good deal of warbling on the soundtrack, with too many musical montages (one including close-ups of western belt buckles!) to intrude on the action. (Bello and Kwanten are by far the most engaging members of this family.) A third is that the story is told in much too heavy-handed and mawkish a fashion. Perhaps the worst moment occurs when Flicka’s taken away to the rodeo, and as the distraught Katy chases the trailer down the road, a rainstorm just happens to suddenly appear and drench her. You can’t get much more obvious than that, and if you were really cruel you might say that it’s here that “Flicka” goes lame. Overall the picture leaves something to be desired technically, too. Though J. Michael Muro’s cinematography captures the lush vistas nicely enough, in many of the action scenes things go haywire. That’s especially true of the riding sequence at the rodeo, which is pretty much a mess.
There’s no question that “Flicka” is earnest and well-intentioned, with an abundance–indeed, overabundance–of good messages about family, tradition, working hard and protecting wild horses (although Katy’s panegyric to the mustangs written as a school exercise and delivered in recurrent narration, really gilds the lily). But even they are compromised by behavior on the part of the young heroine that, by any standard, is certainly reckless and more than a little stupid, and by an approach that fails to meld the familiar and the modern successfully. The recent “Lassie” film simply embraced its old-fashionedness unabashedly and didn’t try to improve on it; “Flicka” tries–but fails miserably.