The new Warner Brothers release, Racing Stripes, is a tale of triumph in the face of adversity. Anyone who has ever felt different can relate to the obstacles that stand in the way of this baby zebra, appropriately named Stripes, who wants nothing more than to become a Kentucky Derby champion. Little does he know, the daughter of the humble horse trainer, who takes him in after he is abandoned by the local circus, has the very same ambition!
The derision and lack of confidence that Stripes struggles with is mirrored by the horse trainer’s daughter, Channing, played by Hayden Panettiere (Raising Helen, Ally McBeal). Both have hurdles to overcome in achieving their dreams—for Channing, it is her father’s disapproval of horseracing and for Stripes, it is the fact that he is not a horse, of course. “He thinks he’s a racehorse, and then, he finds out he is a zebra,” explains Panettiere. “He doesn’t know what kind of animal he is…he doesn’t understand why he looks so different from everyone.”
The modest Kentucky farm that becomes the zebra’s new home has a slew of other animals with more personality than the average, including snooty thoroughbreds who can’t quite get used to the idea of a striped competitor, and a Pelican from New Jersey who’s hiding out in the country evading shady dealings he had in New York City. These humorous animal characters are voiced by an all-star cast featuring such greats as Academy Award winner Dustin Hoffman as Tucker the Pony, Whoopi Goldberg as the older and wiser goat, and Joshua Jackson as Sir Trenton’s Pride, the haughty thoroughbred about to get his comeuppance. Mandy Moore makes her first non-human appearance as—wink, wink—Stripes’ equestrian love interest, Sandy the Mare.
To play the promising young rider, Hayden Panettiere trained with renowned Australian horse trainer, Heath Harris, who gave his protégé her very own saddle. Panettiere completed six weeks of training plus additional practice before her racing scenes in the film, which were shot on location near Derban, South Africa. When asked about her favorite moment during filming, she exclaimed, “I loved riding!” During the training, the talented young actress, who is currently a sophomore in high school, had a chance to develop a special relationship with the animals, especially the striped ones. “Zebras are pack animals, and they bond with certain people,” she said. By the time filming started, the zebras would follow her around.
Working with various four-legged actors in Racing Stripes was a joy for Panettiere, who grew up with creatures of various shapes and sizes and currently has three cats at home, including a longhaired feline she rescued during the filming of the television series Ally McBeal. In working with her striped co-stars, Panettiere learned a great deal about zebras. “The thing about zebras that is different than horses is that zebras have totally different personalities. They do their own thing…zebras are not trainable animals; they are wild animals you can train to a certain degree, and we did an amazing job at it. You wouldn’t believe what the animals would do.”
Although the film made the animal performances appear seamless and natural, there was much more involved behind-the-scenes. Out of the seven zebras potentially playing Stripes, only two were used for filming—the tamest ones. Panettiere did her riding scenes with “Sammy” and her face-to-face scenes with “Schuster,” who according to Panettiere was “just a doll; he was just like a lover.” Panettiere revealed that working with the zebras was “great, but you had to have a lot of patience!” As with the human actors, the young starlet showed the animal actors the same respect. “We were all professionals; they were our costars,” she explained. “When they’re filming, you don’t disturb them because they need to concentrate and do their thing.”
Likewise, caution was important to protect both human and animal actors. The cast and crew were made aware not to make loud sounds or sharp movements around their striped friends “because [zebras] are hunted in the wild; they’ll react to it,” according to Panettiere. “You do not want to be kicked by a zebra,” she warned. And she would know. While holding “Colombia,” one of the foals, Panettiere was kicked in the stomach. “They’re feisty little things!” she exclaimed. Luckily, it wasn’t serious, and Panettiere took it all in stride, although she added, “Zebras have a nasty kick.”
The inspiring human story, along with the preponderance of clever talking animals with their own motivations and ambitions, makes Racing Stripes a playfully Orwellian tale that is great fun for all!