Running Free

Friday June 2, 2000

     Sergei Bodrov's sweeping family adventure "Running Free," as beautiful as it is harsh, tells the story of how herds of wild horses came to roam the red sand dunes of Namibia's vast desert--and what it reveals about humans in their treatment of animals. Written by "The Black Stallion's" Jeanne Rosenberg (from a story she wrote with the film's producer, "Quest for Fire's" Jean-Jacques Annaud), "Running Free" is a stunner marred by its central figure, a colt named Lucky, having been voiced (by Lukas Haas).
     The animal's observations not only are trite but also redundant, for Bodrov, director of the superb Oscar-nominated "Prisoner of the Mountain," and his cinematographer Dan Lausten know how to tell the story visually. The anthropomorphization of Lucky, furthermore, blurs the important distinction between human and animal behavior.
     Though it's true that the narration provided by Haas will certainly be helpful to children in keeping track of what's going on, youngsters really ought to be accompanied by adults in the first place, despite the film's G rating. That's because "Running Free" is unflinching in its depiction of the brutality with which humans treat each other as well as animals.
     This handsome, period-perfect Columbia release opens dramatically in 1914 with an overhead shot of a large number of horses clattering over a cobblestone street in a German port city, where the animals are to be shipped off to Namibia to work in a copper mine, a large, grueling operation overseen by a stern boss (Jan Decleir). Lucky is born mid-passage to a gray mare aboard a German supply ship, but mother and child become separated, with the foal ultimately rescued by Richard (Chase Moore), an orphan stableboy at the mining camp.
     The tie between boy and the colt grows strong, but their situation, always dicey due to human indifference and cruelty, abruptly turns critical when this German outpost is bombed with the spread of World War I to Africa. At this point Richard must do everything in his power to ensure that Lucky will survive on his own with the imminent abandonment of the community by the survivors of the bombing.
     Bodrov and trainer Sled Reynolds' 10-man team have done a totally persuasive job of making the horses behave as naturally as the film's cast of humans, which includes Maria Geelbooi as !Xika, a pretty and resourceful girl from a bushmen tribe, and Arie Verveen as the adult Richard. "Life Is Beautiful" composer Nicola Piovani's score is lyrical and emotionally charged, and it goes a long way toward negating the effects of the voice-over narration we're asked to accept.

Running Free, 2000. G. A Columbia Pictures presentation of a Reperage production. Director Sergei Bodrov. Producer Jean-Jacques Annaud. Executive producers Alisa Tager, Lloyd Phillips. Screenplay by Jeanne Rosenberg; from a story by Annaud and Rosenberg. Cinematographer Dan Lausten. Editor Ray Lovejoy. Music Nicola Piovani. Costumes Jo Katsaras-Barklam. Production designer Wolf Kroeger. Art directors Jonathan Hely-Hutchinson, Zak Grobler. Set decorator Emelia Roux Weavind. Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes. Chase Moore as Richard. Jan Decleir as Boss Man. Arie Verveen as Adult Richard. Maria Geelbooi as !Xika.

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