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Mickey of Arabia 

Disney weighs in at the IMAX with “Young Black Stallion”

If you are able to read this review, you are probably too old to get much pleasure out of “Young Black Stallion,” but it may provide a relatively painless diversion for parents with very young children in tow. The fact that IMAX movies have not thoroughly disentangled themselves from field-trip fare hits you as soon as you enter the Science Museum of Virginia theater. Instead of displaying movie trivia and advertisements for the concession stand, the huge dome offers us factoids perhaps left over from the museum’s recent exhibit, “Grossology,” such as “Earwax actually dries up and forms little balls that drop out when you yawn.” A mild case of disgust with the body may or may not make people receptive to escapist fantasy, but it’s not quite enough to make the latest entry in “The Black Stallion” franchise more than mildly agreeable.

The heroine of the piece is the preteen girl Neera, whom we meet as she crosses the desert with a band of countrymen escorting her home from her wartime sanctuary. They are set upon by what seems a renegade platoon of trigger-happy soldiers. Neera escapes, but her guardians are slaughtered (off screen, in keeping with the film’s G rating). Lost and alone, she happens upon the title character, and together the two find their way to Neera’s grandfather’s house. But grandpa has had a bad war, and has been forced to liquidate his stables to make ends meet. When Neera learns that the family fortunes can be restored by a win in the North African version of the Kentucky Derby, she resolves to enter the race with her newfound friend, in defiance of her grandfather’s stern command.

Director Simon Wincer is certainly on familiar ground when it comes to human-animal bonding, having directed “Free Willy” and “Operation Dumbo Drop.” In “Young Black Stallion,” however, he seems merely to be going through the motions. The minimal dialogue doesn’t give him much chance to develop the human relationships in the film, and even the bond between Neera and her horse is handled perfunctorily. The highlight of films like this is often the sequence in which the wild horse is taught to submit to the saddle, but Wincer chooses to skip the whole business. Watching the stallion being broken could provide real pathos and depth to the relationship between him and Neera, but it might make the “Blues Clues” set fidgety or uncomfortable.

Nor does Wincer work very hard to exploit IMAX technology. Instead, he repeatedly plops his camera down in front of endless dunes and lush valleys, hoping that the size of the images will make up for any lack of artistry. It doesn’t. Anyone who thinks that the vastness of the IMAX screen is enough to maximize awe should take another look at David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia,” compared to which “Young Black Stallion” seems like the slide show your shutterbug relative made you watch after his vacation in the mysterious East.

Only in the final race does Wincer really warm to the task of using his camera to create drama, and he turns in an exciting, although hardly surprising, climax. Older viewers curious about how a Disney production will handle a story focusing exclusively on Arabs may find something to groan at, however. At a crucial moment in the race, young Neera casts off her veil, which, whatever its religious virtue, is making it harder for her to win. It’s as if the Mouse couldn’t set foot in Arabia without delivering at least one preachy little kick to traditional Islamic culture. It’s also the only thing in the movie whose meaning will be lost on many children. But this single nod to the grown-ups in the audience might not be enough ** S
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