In this day and age of over-the-top CGI animation and stop-motion technology, how refreshing it was to take my daughter and her friend to a Saturday morning screening of Flicka. There's no CGI in Flicka, no nifty special effects, no cool characters destined to end up as toys in kiddie meals at your local fast food restaurant. Flicka is one of those family films I might have seen in my own girlhood: A simple story about a misfit girl, an unwanted horse, and a father who doesn't see that his daughter is more like him he wants to admit.

This adaptation of the 1941 Mary O'Hara book My Friend Flicka is an updating and reworking of the classic tale. The basic elements of the story remain the same, but in the 2006 version, the role of young Ken McLaughlin (played by Roddy McDowell in the 1943 version of the film) has become Katy McLaughlin (Alison Lohman), a high school student who spends most of her time at her stuffy Wyoming boarding school daydreaming about her family's ranch and horses. Katy, the only daughter in a long line of male ranchers, is a bit of a rebel; she doesn't finish her history final exam because she's convinced the teachers only want to her to parrot what they've taught in class, not hear what she really thinks. Unfortunately, Katy's failure to pass the exam means the headmaster wants her to repeat the entire year -- and with her family already sacrificing financially to send her to a private school, this is bad news.
Katy returns home for summer vacation, and she is thrilled to be back on her beloved ranch with her mom (Maria Bello), dad (Tim McGraw) and big brother Howard (Ryan Kwanten). Her first day back, she takes a horse out for a ride, and almost gets attacked by mountain lion. Katy is saved from the lion by a wild mustang filly who promptly runs away from her; from her first glimpse at that horse, Katy wants her for her own. Trouble is, Katy's dad, Rob, despises wild mustangs -- he thinks they're nothing but parasites -- and the last thing he wants is some wild misfit of a horse around to dilute his line of purebred Quarterhorses. When Katy's dad finds out about her failing school, he blows his top, and orders her to spend the summer writing that essay, so that he can try to persuade the school to pass her. Katy begs her father to let her catch the mustang so she can train her, but he puts his foot down firmly on that issue -- and around the McLaughlin family's ranch, no one questions Katy's father. He is the undisputed authority figure of the family and business. When Katy's father confines her to a summer of chores and writing rather than the blissful freedom of riding the ranch's 5,000 acres on horseback that she had envisioned, well, it's only natural that a horse-crazy teen with a rebellious streak a mile wide is going to find ways around her father's iron fist.

Rob has his heart set on his son Howard following his footsteps and running the ranch with him. Howard has other ideas; he's tried the ranch, and he just doesn't love it like Katy does. He's won a scholarship to college and he's decided to take it and leave the ranch -- if only he can get up the courage to confront his father. Meanwhile, Katy is secretly on the lookout for the wild mustang, who she's named Flicka. One day she finds Flicka and tries to catch her, but Flicka runs into the herd as her father is rounding them up, nearly causing the entire herd to stampede over a cliff. The ranch hands bring Flicka in, but her father is determined to sell Flicka to the rodeo. The family needs the cash badly, and Rob doesn't want Flicka around. He orders everyone -- especially Katie -- to stay out of Flicka's pen. Of course, Katy isn't about to let that stop her; she is determined to show her father that she can train Flicka and ride her, and sneaks into the pen at night to work with her. Soon, she earns Flicka's trust and the girl and horse begin to bond. When Katy's father finds out she's disobeyed him, the horse manure hits the fan and he ships Flicka off to the rodeo. Katy, broken-hearted, instigates a daring plan with her brother and his girlfriend to win Flicka back.

Flicka is beautifully shot in a pristine mountain setting that is supposed to be Wyoming (according to IMDb, the film was shot in New Zealand and Los Angeles). Helmer Michael Mayer, who works much more on stage than for the screen, shows here that he has a good eye for those wide-open shots that define any film with a Western ranch at its center. There are lots of pretty horses for the horse-crazy girls in the audience to ogle, and that's part of the point. A couple of fellow (male) critics sitting near us were musing over why the filmmakers decided to change the main character from a boy to a girl. Clearly, because everyone involved with the film knew that the target audience was girls in the horse-crazy, eight-to-twelve age range, many of whom will probably be dragged to the film by parents who adored the novel in their own youth. And girls at that age don't want to see a film about a boy; they want (and need) to see films with strong, positive female role models, and Flicka delivers on that score. Whether they drag their parents there or the other way around, though, once they get there, they're in for a jolly good ride.

Flicka
is everything it should be in a film targeting this demographic. You have horses, clean-cut kids -- kids who say yes ma'am and yessir to their parents; kids who don't do anything worse than dunk each other in the pond and enter a horse race they aren't supposed to enter (shades of National Velvet there). Flicka is, in a way, a bit of an antidote to the flood of animated fare we parents have endured all summer, and it's a nice film for the tween demographic that's getting too old (so they think) for the animated flicks their younger siblings want to see, but isn't quite old enough to be subjected to your typical teen flicks. Parents should find lots to like here and very little to feel the need to shield their kids from, and the film could actually spark some great discussion about independence, gender roles, Katy's rebellion against her father's authority, and his desire to protect her from harm at all costs. Flicka is a great family flick, perfect for a dad-and-daughter date, a family film outing, and everyone who's read and loved the book. If the plot gets a little predictable, it makes up for it with its strong female lead and warm heart.