Poor Lucky. The cute little colt is born en route to South Africa, on a ship bearing his mother and many other horses destined for hard labor in the desert, just before the start of World War I. As he describes the experience, by way of introducing his indefatigable voice-over (read by Lucas Haas throughout the film), “In this strange and unsteady place, I taught myself to stand. That is how I started my life.” And meanwhile you’re watching the wobbly foal stagger to his baby hooves, pitched about by the ocean, or more precisely, the ocean-effect concocted on a dank and clammy-looking sound stage.
“I was born to run free and wild,” Lucky informs us. Which means, I gather, that this initial situation is a problem. And indeed, he spends the rest of the movie which covers several years of his life looking to cut loose from the humans who maltreat, betray, and generally dog him out. Jeanne Rosenberg, who wrote the comparatively minimalist The Black Stallion (magnificently directed by cinematographer Carroll Ballard in 1979) has written a script that’s all over the map, target- audience-wise. While the story is probably a bit brutal for wee tots, it does pack enough generalized action to appeal to a Lion King-ish demographic, and yet, the narration is so fatuous and distracting that preteens will likely feel as insulted by it as their adult escorts. And while, as the movie’s title announces, the opposition between freedom and not-freedom is a major theme, hit hard and often, it’s rather less than compelling, intellectually or emotionally.
Chase Moore, Jan Decleir, Arie Verveen, Maria Geelbooi, with narration by Lucas Haas
In asking viewers to identify with a horse, the movie most often takes the easy route, pounding away with images of the bedraggled (“I was too weak to stand; I found myself moving in and out of dreams”) or frantic (“I couldn’t answer my mother!”) colt. The film makes its case for identification most effectively when the voice-over eases up, when cinematographer Dan Laustsen’s frankly stunning images of red Namibian desert sands and piercing blue skies, horses thundering and lions dashing, can speak for themselves. I mean, it’s just not necessary to explain what’s going on when the colt is poking his tiny nose up over the wooden slats of his trailer, whinnying frantically for his mommy, who in response, engages in some impressive nostril-flaring and all- around gallant (if doomed) attempts to break loose in order to return to him. These are heart-wrenching pictures, only flattened by accompanying verbiage like, “I was hungry and thirsty, the world made no sense!”
All this overkill leads to a standard childhood fantasy/trauma, abandonment, when, on landing, the big meanie humans separate Lucky from his mother. On land, of course, baby Lucky isn’t really so useful for the slave-driver-humans. And so, none of them minds much when an orphaned boy named Richard (Chase Moore) arrives to save him. Since Richard cleans the stables for a local Aryan-looking mucky-muck, he has a place where Lucky can stay. To be sure, there are moments when Richard’s unnamed “Boss Man” (Jan Decleir) seems about to put the kebash on the boy’s burgeoning friendship with the horse especially when goaded by his also unnamed and preternaturally hostile son (Daniel J. Robbertse), who appears determined for some ingrained Aryanite reason to torture Richard the Commoner. But for the most part, Lucky’s relationship with Richard is uninhibited by the usual human abuses (say, the kind that plagued poor Black Beauty back in the day). “This boy,” says Lucky, “had a gentle touch.” And yes indeed, we see the boy gently touching Lucky.
Strangely, Lucky’s principal run-ins come not with the humans, who are after all preoccupied with the imminent hostilities that will inevitably decimate their lifestyles. No, Lucky’s primary adversary is a horse. And not just any horse, but a gigantic huffing and puffing and hoof-stomping black stallion named Cesar, who’s so concerned that his own daughter (a filly named Beauty) might hook up with Lucky, a plebe, that he (Cesar) goes out of his way to put the beat down on Lucky’s mom. Of the many absurd notions that Running Free proffers, the suggestion that this horse has class consciousness and worse, a ferocious contempt for the underclass, is probably the most offensive. That, and the fact that he is a black stallion, well, it’s all just a bit much, metaphorically speaking. Well, okay, maybe Cesar’s the classic colonial subject, internalizing his master’s doctrines as his own. Still, there’s a translation problem (as Lucky seems to be the only horse who actually speaks English): how Cesar gets his info on who has a pedigree and how pedigrees might matter to him, or how such a stud would rather murder a mating-age mare than mount her… Suffice to say that an understanding of “nature”‘s rhythms is not Running Free‘s strong suit.
The film itself has an excellent sort of pedigree, as it’s directed by Sergei Bodrov (Prisoner of the Mountains) and produced by Jean- Jacques Annaud (who directed The Name of the Rose, The Bear and, alas, Seven Years in Tibet). But all these skilled hands are unable to rescue Running Free, which becomes more and more preposterous as it goes on. And on.
It takes Lucky a few attempts at running away from the Boss Man’s estate before he’s able to make it stick. Well, a few attempts and the intervention of WWI, which involves some planes swooping in to shoot up the mining town. At one point, stumbling through the desert with a wounded leg, Lucky and his boy are discovered by a young bushman girl named Nyka (Maria Geelbooi). Fortunately, she knows a little something about survival in the desert, as well as some roots remedies for wounded legs, and so, she teaches them how to get by. Eventually, Richard and Lucky are separated, and Lucky makes friends, temporarily, with various desert creatures (lion cubs until their mom comes home looking for dinner, an oryx until he finds a girlfriend and leaves Lucky in the dust). Lucky is determined, though, to find a fabled paradise in the mountains, where grass grows and water runs freely. It’s no surprise that he finds this Valhalla, though it’s probably best not to go into detail on how he makes it the perfect place for a boy horse, that is, by assembling his own herd of loyal and submissive girl horses.