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'Moondance' is an OK horse drama

Family feature feels more like a cable or straight-to-video film

Moondance (Kay Panabaker) in "Moondance Alexander."
Moondance (Kay Panabaker) in "Moondance Alexander."
Riviera Films

MOONDANCE ALEXANDER — ** 1/2 — Kay Panabaker, Don Johnson, Lori Loughlin; rated G (violence)

"Moondance Alexander" isn't quite ready for its close-up. Not on the big screen, anyway.

This family drama looks, sounds and feels a lot like something that was produced by the Disney Channel, or for the Lifetime network. It's certainly not terrible, but why the filmmakers didn't just ship it straight to video or cable is anyone's guess.

We've seen this kind of story done much better fairly recently in "Seabiscuit." And it follows on the heels of a so-so adaptation of the much-filmed "Flicka," which this film recalls.

Television actress Kay Panabaker ("Phil of the Future," "Summerland") stars as the title character, an unpopular high school student who's struggling to fit in. The only friend she's made recently is a runaway pinto owned by reclusive stable owner Dante Longpre (Don Johnson).

Moondance convinces Dante to let her work in his stable, and to let her ride the pinto, which she names Checkers. But the teen also has to convince her mother (Lori Loughlin) of the merits of her new hobby. But what they don't know is that Moondance has recently discovered Checkers may be a champion jumper, and that the teen wants to enter the horse in a local competition.

This is former soap-opera actor Michael Damian's third feature as filmmaker. His story construction is pretty clumsy, and for a supposed real-life story there are a few things here that don't ring true — particularly some life-or-death drama involving the horse.

Damian also made a curious choice in casting figure skater Sasha Cohen in a small but crucial supporting role as Moondance's high school and horsejumping rival. Her performance is pretty awkward and awful.

However, the rest of the cast is pretty good. The film is at its best when Johnson and Panabaker are playing teacher and pupil. The three horses that play Checkers are real show-stealers as well.

"Moondance Alexander" is rated G but does features some mild animal violence (horse tantrums). Running time: 93 minutes.