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Saddle up 'Flicka' takes target audience for a ride

When we think of movies about horses, it's difficult not to cringe at the veritable minefield of failures, both recent and historic. The list includes "The Horse Whisperer," "Hot to Trot," "Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken," "Racing Stripes" and so on, each tanking spectacularly in its own way.

Only slightly better received in the world of big-screen anthropomorphism have been films about talking pigs, which should provide some idea of the unique filmic and technical challenges that must be overcome to produce a film about animals that is truly universal and meaningful.

"Flicka," a film based on Mary O'Hara's famous children's book "My Friend Flicka," sadly, is not this breakthrough movie. It is, nevertheless, a touching enough fairy tale that manages to capture the majesty of the animal and imbue its human-horse relationships with a kind of noble meaning. Its script is smart if saccharine, its acting nicely understated and its visuals completely breathtaking, themselves worth the price of admission.

At its heart, "Flicka" is a fable that explores the mysterious and indelible connection between horses and young girls, flipping the gender roles from the book. The film takes place against the jaw-droppingly beautiful background of sprawling Wyoming ranch land. Katie McLaughlin (Alison Lohman), our young heroine, is in the midst of an identity crisis, struggling to keep up at her private school in the East and contemplating an uncertain future. Her thoughts always stray toward horses, which her father, Rob McLaughlin (Tim McGraw), keeps on his family's enormous ranch.

Upon Katie's return to the ranch for summer vacation, she encounters a wild mustang deep in the wilderness. When the horse she is riding gets spooked by a lion (we can forget that North American lions became extinct 10,000 years ago), the mustang scares off the predator, and Katie decides to take the horse in against the wishes of her father. This sets off a rivalry between Katie and her father and tension among her whole family, including mother Nell (Maria Bello) and disarmingly cute brother Howard (Ryan Kwanten). Through the course of the film, Katie becomes increasingly distressed at her father's obstinacy, which she tries to quell enough to keep Flicka, her wild mustang.

McGraw's performance is surprisingly noteworthy and convincing, as are those of Lohman and even some of the supporting cast. The film will appeal, as intended, mostly to "tweenage" girls and their mothers, but obvious attempts have been made to make it more widely acceptable. The most impressive tact is the no doubt enormous budget for photography, which includes striking aerial shots of Wyoming. These are not your standard landscapes, but something a bit more artistic, and one reason not to groan about taking your 9-year-old girl to see a film that she will probably love.

FLICKA

REVIEW: 3 stars (Out of 4)

STARRING: Alison Lohman, Tim McGraw, Ryan Kwanten and Maria Bello

DIRECTOR: Michael Mayer

RUNNING TIME: 94 minutes

RATING: PG for some mild language.

THE LOWDOWN: An adaptation of the famous children's book "My Friend Flicka" that explores a girl's quest for independence and desperate need to tame a wild mustang.

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