Grade: B-

The “Babe” formula–featuring a young animal that wants to succeed in the role of some other species amidst a bevy of farmyard friends, all of whom can converse among themselves–is recycled in “Racing Stripes.” The difference is that this time around, the cute, ambitious hero is a zebra rather than a porker, and instead of a sheepdog he wants to be a champion racehorse. In this case, however, he’s also saddled, so to speak, with a young mistress with whom kiddie audiences can identify (and who can also serve as his photogenic jockey in the big final race). But for all the cosmetic changes from the template in David F. Schmidt’s screenplay (based, we’re told, on a story that took no fewer than four people to contrive–him, the director and two of the producers), the constant indebtedness to Chris Noonan’s 1995 charmer is everywhere apparent. The new picture even emulates its predecessor’s gentle, unhurried pace: for a picture about speed, “Stripes” moves very slowly indeed, pretty much cantering along until the concluding race. That’s not exactly a drawback, since most children’s movies nowadays tend to be as hyperactive as their target audience. And the air of sweetness, the message about accepting others despite their differences and striving to do your best against difficult odds, and the general lack of the crudity so frequent in contemporary family entertainment (a few poop and flatulence jokes apart) will sit well with parents searching for movies suitable for smaller kids. (The picture also boasts some strong talent in the human roles; it isn’t often that you’ll find actors as seasoned as Bruce Greenwood and E. Emmet Walsh gracing a kidflick.) Still, as a result of the slow gait even the youngest viewers will notice just how “Babe”-like it is; it’s almost like going around the same track a second time.

The opening has a young zebra accidentally abandoned by a traveling circus along a Kentucky roadside. The colt is taken up by Nolan Walsh (Greenwood, giving a performance perhaps too earnestly nuanced for the material), a farmer and erstwhile champion horse-trailer. Stripe (voiced by Frankie Muniz), as he’s called, is at once adopted by Walsh’s feisty daughter Channing (Hayden Panettiere, a bit colorless), who works at the nearby racetrack owned by her father’s previous employer, snooty Clara Dalrymple (Wendie Malick, doing a bargain-basement version of Cruella De Vil), but who’s overprotected by her daddy, still broken up over his wife’s death in a riding accident years earlier. Stripe also becomes a member of the family made up of the other barnyard critters: sharp-tongued but motherly goat Franny (Whoopi Goldberg); grumpy Shetland pony Tucker (Dustin Hoffman), who was Nolan’s right hand in the training game; and scatterbrained rooster Reggie (Jeff Foxworthy)–to whose number is soon added an interloper, a crackpot pelican named Goose (Joe Pantoliano) who fancies himself a runaway mob hit-bird from New Jersey. Observing the thoroughbreds racing at the track next door, Stripes fancies himself a potential champion himself, earning the derision of promising colt Trenton’s Pride (Joshua Jackson) and the hostility of his champion daddy Sir Trenton (Fred Dalton Thompson). The horses are further incensed that Stripes catches the eye of free-spirited filly Sandy (Mandy Moore). Stripes persists, however, and with the support of Channing, Tucker, the other animals, and old track rat Woodzie (Walsh), he eventually wins over Nolan, setting up the big final race. Of course there are obstacles, as when Stripes is crestfallen to find out that he’s not really a horse, but with the help of his friends and a couple of fast-talking horseflies, Buzz and Scuzz (Steve Harvey and David Spade) he rallies in the end.

As the above shows, “Racing Stripes” benefits from a strong cast, not only on screen but off, in terms of the voice performers (in addition to those already noted, Michael Clarke Duncan, Michael Rosenbaum and Snoop Dogg man the microphones). It also boasts a colorful production designed by Wolf Kroeger and cinematography by David Eggby that gives the South African locations a nice glow. And the combination of expert animal training supervised by Karl Lewis Miller, CGI and (occasionally) puppetry and animatronics makes the numerous sequences in which horses and other critters are at center stage work as well as the similar ones in previous pictures, if not better–even though no amount of technical wizardry can make the culminating race look remotely real. (Frankly it looks as though the zebra would get blown off the track, and no amount of canny editing can conceal it.)

On its own, “Racing Stripes” is a pleasant kiddie flick, though when put into direct competition with its obvious inspiration, “Babe,” it trails badly. Still, it has enough heart and humor to land it in the winner’s circle, even if not in first place.