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Neigh! Neigh!

A lack of horse sense reins in Running Free.

The moody, feverish images that fill Running Free are so exquisite they almost make up for the film's disastrous auditory misstep: the decision to cast Lukas Haas as the voice of Lucky, the chestnut foal that narrates this unusual adventure story. A cross between Nicholas Roeg's Walkabout and Jean-Jacques Annaud's The Bear, Running Free sets its tale of survival in the wilds of Africa. In this case, the central character is a horse born while his mother is being transported across the ocean from an unidentified European country (presumably Germany) to Namibia, where horses were needed to work in the mines in the early part of the twentieth century.

Lucky, as the colt is later christened, suffers two separations: the first from his mother, the second from an orphaned stable boy who befriends him at the mining camp. He learns how to survive in the parched, unforgiving desert from a young Bushman girl who teaches him which plants are edible and how to detect the almost imperceptible signs of underground springs.

Although the film's characters are fictional, the story is based on a real-life historical mystery: how a herd of wild horses came to make its home in the vast, desolate wastelands of Namibia. Theories abound, but the most likely explanation is that German workers brought the mounts to the town of Aus, once home to a flourishing diamond mine, prior to World War I. For some reason -- perhaps when war broke out and British bombers tried to rout the Germans -- the immigrants fled, leaving everything behind, including their horses. Over the years, the stronger animals adapted to the region's inhospitable, drought-plagued environment. While a standard horse needs water every day, these creatures can go four or five days without a drink.

Inspired by tales he heard of the fabled wild horses, filmmaker Annaud, best known as the director of Quest for Fire, The Bear and, more recently, Seven Years in Tibet, developed his own story, which he chose to produce rather than to direct. He gathered a formidable team: screenwriter Jeanne Rosenberg, who previously had penned The Black Stallion, and the Russian-born director Sergei Bodrov, whose feel for landscape -- both emotional and physical -- is evident in his Academy Award-nominated Prisoner of the Mountains as well as in such stellar earlier work as Freedom Is Paradise.

Judging by their best movies, Bodrov and Annaud share a deep sense of humanity, an unusual grasp for how geography both affects and reflects inner life, and a recognition that even the harshest realms of nature carry a foreboding, ethereal beauty. And, in fact, it's these very elements that work best in Running Free, a film in which a palette of mustard yellows, burnt reds and cinnamon browns converges in the foggy mists of a European waterway or the blowing sands of Africa. Despite an almost constant sense of movement -- a barge floating down a river, horses clamoring off the train -- the sepia-toned images appear to be almost frozen in time, suggesting the dreamlike, slightly surreal quality of old photographs or daguerreotypes.

In Bodrov's films, physical environment constitutes a character, not just a setting; the geographic location is part and parcel of the spiritual landscape. And in Danish cinematographer Dan Lausten, Bodrov has found an ideal collaborator. Winner of three Danish Academy Awards, Lausten reveals an eye not only for color and texture but also for rhythm and emotion. The barge gliding down the fog-enshrouded river has a haunted, melancholy beauty that touches the soul. A shot of a locomotive steaming across the endless desert, silhouetted against a crimson sky, takes one's breath away.

Unfortunately, the mood is broken when the human characters take center stage. While the story they inhabit remains involving -- and, in fact, requires their appearance-- they seem almost to be intruding. This wasn't the case in The Bear, in which the people also served as a dramatic foil to the animals. The problem lies with the actors. While playing a very different role, the child actor in Running Free (Chase Moore in his feature debut) doesn't have the presence of the Colorado actor who starred in The Black Stallion. Far worse is Nicholas Trueb, playing the mine manager's son, whose self-righteous manner suggests a parody of a bullying, spoiled brat rather than a real child.

But it is Haas's voice -- an egregiously unsuitable voice -- that proves most detrimental to the film. Haas, probably still best remembered as the young Amish boy in Witness, is a fine actor, but he has been encouraged to recite Lucky's lines in a bland, presumably child-friendly way. Purists may lament the decision to have Lucky narrate the film at all, but the real problem is that Haas's voice lacks personality. It almost sounds dubbed, and much as in a dubbed movie, the voice and the character/action simply don't jell.

Perhaps Haas's delivery will prove more acceptable to kids than adults -- but, like The Bear, this film should appeal to adults even more than to children. And not just to equine enthusiasts, who constitute an obvious audience (a fight between two horses is so convincing you cannot imagine how it could have been staged). Running Free is so visually magnificent that anyone who feels spiritually or emotionally connected to nature should walk away with something.

 
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