[Screen It]

(2003) (Biana G. Tamimi, Richard Romanus) (G)

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Drama: After befriending a young black stallion in 1946 North Africa, a young girl hopes to use him in a race to win back her family's previously sold herd.
It's 1946 North Africa, and Neera (BIANA G. TAMIMI) is a young girl traveling with the elderly Kadir (ANDRIES ROSSOUW) in a camel caravan through the desert. When Mansoor (ALI AL AMERI) and his men approach with seemingly hostile intentions, Kadir sends Neera riding off for safety. She escapes, but ends up falling from her ride. When she awakens, she has no idea where she is.

She finds a friend of sorts, however, in the form of a young black stallion whose mother was captured by Mansoor and his men. After several days in the desert, Neera finds her way to the house owned by her grandfather, Ben Ishak (RICHARD ROMANUS), but the black stallion runs off. That prompts Ben to state that he was just a desert apparition spawned by none other than the Devil.

Neera doesn't believe that, but is upset when she learns that her grandfather had to sell the family horses - to make ends meet -- to Rhamon (GERARD RUDOLF), a sheik who's involved in cross-desert races where the winner claims their opponents' horses.

A year later, the black stallion suddenly reappears, much to Neera's delight. She wants to race him in a contest against Mansoor and Rhamon to retrieve the family horses, but Ben explicitly forbids it. Nevertheless, and with the aid of her friend Aden (PATRICK ELYAS), Neera begins to train with her new horse in hopes of entering that tough race and winning.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
If there's one thing you have to give Disney credit for, it's that they're consistently the studio to count on for kids' films. Good, bad or mediocre, they don't ever stop pumping out the product for a highly lucrative and desirous market.

They're also consistent with a certain theme in most such films (and others they distribute) and that's having characters with one or more missing or dead parents. From Bambi to Nemo, parents are viewed -- at least thematically -- as an expendable commodity and/or plot catalyst.

That continues -- in both human and horse form -- in the studio's latest release aimed at kids, "Young Black Stallion." Much like TV's "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles" and it's more famous movie release, this story takes places before its more well-known predecessor, 1979's well-received "The Black Stallion." Much like that film and its 1983 sequel, "The Black Stallion Returns," this one features a kid, the titular horse and a big race at the end.

If you're not a little kid and you've seen either of those films -- or pretty much any other similar release -- little of what occurs here will come as a surprise. That may be a bit of a moot point, however, since it is aimed squarely at young ones who will likely be drawn into the standard kid befriends animal story.

Of benefit to them - and any parent who hates their kids getting a case of the squirms -- the film's total running time (credits included) is around fifty minutes, so it should hold most any child's attention and not bore adults. It also doesn't hurt that all of that's due to it appearing (at least in theatrical release) only in the giant IMAX format.

With those huge screens and the film format's inherent super resolution, the movie is breathtaking to behold in terms of both sheer size and sharpness. Filmed in Namibia (substituting for post-WWII North Africa), the vistas are wonderful thanks to the terrific camera work by cinematographer Reed Smoot (Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey," various IMAX features) and his crew, and often take on something approaching a 3-D appearance (sans the usual filtered glasses).

That's rather important since much of the story is told visually rather than through screenwriter Jeanne Rosenberg's ("Running Free," "White Fang") sparse dialogue. Of course, the short running time doesn't allow much plot to unfold or develop. Simply put, it's about as basic as girl gets lost, meets horse that then runs away, returns a year later and competes in the big and climatic race.

In fact, the dialogue could have been jettisoned altogether, resulting in the first "silent" film in a long time, at least beyond composer William Ross' ("Tuck Everlasting," "My Dog Skip") terrific and sweeping score. That actually might have benefited the effort as some of the dialogue delivery and other acting is -- to be polite -- a bit rough around the edges.

Newcomer Biana Tamimi has the right look for the part of the protagonist and there's no doubt she'll connect with the younger viewers in the audience. Richard Romanus ("The Couch Trip," TV's "The Sopranos") plays her protective grandfather, and fellow newcomer Patrick Elyas her friend (or relative, that point is never made clear among other things in the film).

Portraying the loosely constructed antagonists are Gerard Rudolf ("Adrenaline," "Styx") and Ali Al Ameri (of unknown credits) as rival horse racers (who are symbolically dressed in white and black respectively so that kids - at least subconsciously -- can know who the bad guy really is).

With the scant running length, there's little to any time available for character development. Coupled with the mediocre to rough acting performances and that part of the film is its weakest link. In fact, the horse probably delivers the best take on his "character."

Even so, the climatic race (including many overhead shots through canyons and the like) is exciting to behold and the overall picture looks terrific. Considering all of that eye candy as well as a short running time that will tax nary a child nor parent's patience, the feature -- or should it be considered a featurette -- is passable and certainly innocuous entertainment.

With a little more work on the basic story and some better performances, however, this could have been a classic mini-me version of its more famous and overall better executed predecessor. Nevertheless and despite retreading - in simplified form - the basic story gist from that film and its sequel, "Young Black Stallion" is entertaining enough to rate as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed December 20, 2003 / Posted December 25, 2003

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