Walt Disney used to make “true life adventures” centering on
the animal world back in the 1950s, but Sergei Bodrov’s new
picture about a young foal who arrives in South Africa in the
period immeduately proceeding World War I, endures a brief
sojourn in a mining town, loses his mother, and escapes into
the desert, where he eventually becomes the leader of a wild
herd, is the first such effort I can recall that’s actually
narrated by its equine protagonist. The result, shall we say,
is often nice to look at but almost always silly to listen

The construction of the picture, which might be taken as a
companion-piece to producer Jean-Jacques Annaud’s earlier
outdoors epic “The Bear” (1988), is very simple. Lucky (played
early on by a colt named Nisha and later by a stallion
called Aladdin) is born during an ocean crossing to a South
African mining town and, upon arrival, is separated from his
mother, a grey mare played by one Kateefa; the foal is taken
in by a kindly orphan stableboy (Chase Moore), but as he grows
up and becomes attracted to a local filly with very strong
bloodlines named Beauty (played by Noodle), her arrogant
thoroughbread daddy Caesar (played by one Fat Albert) intervenes
to prevent the match, and eventually is responsible for the
death of Lucky’s mom. When the war arrives, the humans are
all forced to depart, and Lucky goes off into the desert where,
largely as a result of the survival skills he’d earlier learned
via his young master and a helpful bushman lass (Maria Geelbooi),
he flourishes and grows strong; eventually he returns to the
homestead to link up with Beauty, an act that forces him into
hool-to-hoof combat with his old nemesis Caesar. (One could
note that this is the second movie of the summer in which the
culminating brawl is between the hero and a preening villain
with a Roman imperial name; but the final faceoff here is far
less bloody and savage than the one in “Gladiator,” as befits
a kiddie flick.)

There’s nothing wrong with this sort of learning-to-cope-
against-adversity beast tale for the younger set, and Bodrov
(the able Russian helmer of 1996’s “Prisoner of the Mountains”)
proves quite successful in directing his equine performers;
but the project is ultimately derailed by the misguided decision
to have the story narrated from the horse’s mouth, as it were.
“The Bear” certainly demonstrated that such material could be
handled purely visually, and that could easily have been done
in this instance as well; the occasional human locutions
would have been entirely sufficient to clarify the background,
and Lucky’s comments ordinarily just reiterate, pointlessly,
what the action onscreen has already shown us. To make matters
worse, the narration is spoken in a sing-song near-monotone by
Lukas Haas; the words are aimed at children, certainly, but
Haas’ tone sounds as though it’s directed toward mental
defectives. The outcome is frequently laughable, and things
aren’t helped by an overbearing, insistent music score penned
by Nicola Piovani.

Still, if one stops up his ears and merely watches the screen,
“Running Free” offers some nice visuals, and the starring
horses have been led to perform in a way that makes them
surprisingly expressive without being fully anthropomorphized
in the way of animated Disney figures.

It remains to be seen, however, whether so slow-moving and old-
fashioned a family film can survive in today’s temptestuous
feature marketplace. My guess is not; so if you want to take
your children to see it, you’re advised to do so quickly. The
title might be “Running Free,” but it’s a good bet that the
picture won’t be showing long.