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(2000) (Chase Moore, Jan Decleir) (G)

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Drama/Children's: A young horse must learn how to survive on his own in the desert after all of the humans abandon an African mining town at the onset of WWI.
It's 1914 and Lucky (voice of LUKAS HAAS) is a young colt born aboard a German supply steamer headed for an African mining town. Separated from his mother upon landfall, Lucky wanders through the town, noting how most of the other horses are used as slave labor. Things look up for the perplexed foal when Richard (CHASE MOORE), an orphaned stable boy, adopts him.

The mining boss (JAN DECLEIR) isn't pleased about the colt sharing stable space with his purebred steed, Caesar, but lets Richard get away with it, much to the chagrin of the boss' young son (NICHOLAS TRUEB). Although Lucky immediately realizes that Caesar doesn't like him, and that the stallion runs the farm, the colt falls for his exuberant daughter, Beauty. Things continue to look up when Lucky and his mom are reunited, but the reunion is brief and tragically sad.

Things get worse when the outbreak of WWI suddenly causes the townspeople to flee the locale, thus leaving the animals to fend for themselves. Since Caesar still rules the farm, Lucky decides to head out into the desert, looking for an alleged lake where he could live. With the aid of a young native, Nyka (MARIA GEELBOOI), Lucky learns the methods of surviving in such a foreboding and hostile environment, all while waiting for the day when he can return to the town, confront Caesar, and making everything right once again.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
On our annual vacation trek to North Carolina's Outer Banks, we're occasionally treated to glimpses of the few surviving wild horses that continue to roman the northernmost stretches of those barrier islands. Reportedly the descendents of original Spanish mustangs brought over to America centuries earlier, the sight of such uncommon creatures makes one ponder how they managed to survive for so long on what was, until relatively recently, a mostly isolated locale.

A similar thought apparently crossed the minds of the filmmakers behind "Running Free," although the subjects of their film are the wild horses of Africa's Namib Desert and not those roaming eastern Carolina. A straight-forward but episodic "nature" film presented from one of the horse's point of view, this picture is similar in nature (no pun intended) to 1989's "The Bear," the film about an orphaned bear cub who had to learn how to survive in the wild until eventually being accepted by an adult male who then became his buddy and protector.

The similarity shouldn't seem so striking, however, when one notes that Jean-Jacques Annaud ("Quest for Fire," "Seven Years in Tibet") is this film's producer and co-screenwriter who also happened to direct "The Bear." Like that film, this one features the birth of an animal that becomes an orphan and must then face and ultimately overcome various hardships and obstacles while growing up, although this one takes place in a foreign and environmentally hostile land.

Unlike that film that had very little dialogue, this one also allows us inside the main animal character's head. Thankfully, it isn't the second coming of Mr. Ed, and while it's a pleasant change of pace not to have Lucky or the other horses talk via computer enhanced effects or animatronics, the filmmakers unfortunately opted to use human voice over narration for the effect. As supplied by actor Lukas Haas ("Leap of Faith," "Witness") who, intentionally or not, sounds very much like Michael J. Fox doing the same sort of work, such narration comes off as too "on the nose" and manipulative as it informs the viewer of exposition, motives and behavior.

While young kids will probably benefit from the info - especially since it lets them know what's happening in something of a storybook sense while explaining everything in the simplest detail - teens and adults will likely find such simplistic comments ("I missed my mother...I would never stop looking for her" and "Why did Caesar hate me so much?") increasingly irritating and irksome when not insulting their and probably most kids' intelligence.

Fortunately, the narration isn't completely pervasive and some human characters are present to provide more realistic and less obvious dialogue. The filmmakers, however, would have been wiser to use either a form of third party narration to get the necessary info across - such as furnished by Dudley Moore in the far superior and more enjoyable "Milo and Otis" -- or one that was at least more imaginatively written than what Annaud and co-screenwriter Jeanne Rosenberg ("White Fang," "The Black Stallion") deliver/provide.

The story, as simple as they come - even during its most complex moments - does work as it follows the familiar but still partially intriguing story of a colt who overcomes various hardships to survive, grow up, and eventually avenge his mother's death. It's certainly not Shakespeare by any means and such a description gives both the plot and its characters more of a fleshed out appearance than what's really present, but in an underlying sense, at least the basic story is functional.

Unfortunately, Russian director Sergei Bodrov (who helmed the well-made and Oscar-nominated foreign flick, "Prisoner of the Mountain") tells the story in too much of a fragmented and episodic way. Granted, the story covers many years and needs to hit on various events as it unfolds and proceeds, but the end result is that the picture is too choppy to allow the viewer - young or old - to get into the proceedings as fully as they should have.

Most likely a prime example of steadfast determination, patience, and plenty of miles of shot film, Bodrov and his crew get decent "performances" from the various horses. That's no minor accomplishment either, since horses, unlike many of their cinematic, animal brethren, aren't particularly endowed with the most expressive faces for acting work.

Even so, with the score by composer Nicola Piovani ("Life is Beautiful") and Haas' irritating voice over narration, the filmmakers manage to give the horse enough human traits and characteristics to appease the little ones in the audience who need such identification.

Although their human costars aren't saddled with such obvious and stilted voice over narration, their performances barely make much of an impression. Newcomer Chase Moore (who makes his feature film debut) get the most substantial role - and I use that term generously - as Lucky's human friend and caretaker, but the undernourished script never allows the young actor to do much with his character.

Jan Decleir ("Character," "Antonia's Line") fairs even worse as the mean mining town boss, while Maria Geelbooi (who also makes her film debut) occasionally appears as a young native girl who befriends and helps the boy and his horse, but isn't around long enough to make much of a lasting impression.

Although the film's structure and storytelling style might appeal to the youngest of kids who are still hooked on bed-time stories, older kids and especially their parents - or any other adults - are likely to tire quickly of the forced proceedings long before the film's relatively short running time of 80 some minutes is up.

With its efforts seriously undermined by a horribly executed inclusion of all too obvious voice over narration, the film may look nice - courtesy of cinematographer Dan Lausten ("Nightwatch," "Mimic") - and have the right intentions, but it ultimately and unfortunately isn't that enjoyable or entertaining. It certainly doesn't measure up to other animal-based films such as "The Bear" or "The Black Stallion," and as such, "Running Free" rates as just a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed May 26, 2000 / Posted June 2, 2000

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