''High School Musical'''s Zac Efron stars in ''The Derby Stallion,'' a formulaic but fun straight-to-DVD movie. Plus: More DVDs and a book that teaches religious tolerance

By EW Staff
June 13, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT
Echo Bridge Home Entertainment.

”Derby Stallion”: Solid bet for girls


The Derby Stallion
(Not yet rated, 98 mins., 2007)
Question: What are two things that preteen girls love? Answer: Horses and impossibly cute boys with bangs. So what a clever idea to put High School Musical heartthrob Zac Efron in what is essentially an updated (and straight-to-DVD) version of 1939’s National Velvet, with blue-eyed Efron in the Elizabeth Taylor role. Filmed before High School became a smash — and now timed to tide over your tween before Efron makes his big-screen debut in Hairspray next month and High School Musical 2 hits the Disney Channel in August — Stallion is a sweet, if formulaic, tale of how the love of a good horse, belief in one’s self, and the wisdom of a kindly mentor can change a kid’s life.

Fifteen-year-old Patrick (Efron) doesn’t want to play baseball, to the disappointment of his ex-big-leaguer Dad (William R. Moses). Instead, he’s been skipping practices to hang out with Houston, an elderly black sage and horseman, played by the always wonderful Bill Cobbs. Houston, cursed with a bad heart (sadness alert) and a drinking problem — indicated by a couple sips from a flask — ends up training Patrick for the Derby Cup in the steeplechase (a horse race with jumps). Of course, there is the requisite bully, who not only is the current champ, but also the richest boy in the county. He does things like smash Houston’s vegetable stand and drive around on his ATV, wearing an unconvincingly snarl. And let’s not forget the blonde, new girl in town (Crystal Hunt) who becomes the object of both boys’ attentions. Guess which one she ends up kissing?

Okay, Stallion is full of clichés and you don’t for one minute believe that it is Efron who is riding in the final race. In fact, the race itself is oddly anti-climatic (do not expect Seabiscuit). But the relationship between boy and mentor is touching, Efron is adorable, family values are applauded and, well, you have the satisfaction of knowing how it will all turn out. B-Beth Johnson
Recommended ages: 5 and up

Kids’ Favorite Country Songs
60 mins., 2007
Don’t get me wrong — I love the little red furry guy as much as the next parent, as he’s gotten me through some rough toddler times. But there can be such a thing as too much Elmo. Especially when he’s paired with his cousin Elmer, and their high-pitched dialogue starts to create that blacked-out buzzing noise that makes you reach for the Excedrin. Perhaps this is one that Junior can watch on his own. If, however, you’re up for sticking out the chatter, you’ll be rewarded with some lovely musical pairings from Sesame Workshop: Blues Traveler’s John Popper and a 13-year-old harmonica virtuoso perform ”Home on the Range”; Lee Ann Womack does a country medley of ”Skip to My Lou” and ”Farmer in the Dell”; and Tim McGraw and Faith Hill plug the joys of sharing in ”Taking Turns.” B-Eileen Clarke
Recommended ages: 1-4

Flight 29 Down: Volume One
75 mins., 2007
Kenny the Shark: Feeding Frenzy (Vol. 1)
66 mins., 2007
Discovery Kids is releasing a few of its shows on DVD. Flight 29 Down, a sort of Lost for tweens, follows some high-school plane-crash victims (including High School Musical‘s Corbin Bleu) as they try to survive on a tropical island. The soap opera-ish story lines (Does she like me? Does he like me?) will captivate kids — even the ones who are used to getting their bottled water from the store may start thinking about how getting clean drinking water could be something of an effort.

Kenny the Shark is an hour-long cartoon about a landlubber (and domesticated) tiger shark who becomes the family pet of his friend Kat — kind of like the marine version of Clifford. But while Clifford‘s stories are gentle and insightful, I found no redeeming qualities in Kenny — only joke after lame joke about his weight and craving for seal meat (he even attends a support group for predators). Flight 29 Down: A-, Kenny the Shark: C-EC
Recommended ages: 6 and up


To give your favorite dad a chuckle or two in honor of Father’s Day, have him check out www.dadlabs.com, where he can pick up key parenting skills. Daddies Clay and Brad host some pretty hilarious videos, from what to do when junior poops in the tub to what a breast pump really feels like (the one who lost the coin toss demonstrates); plus there are blogs, advice, and the latest in dad products, including a very manly diaper bag. —EC


Strange Relations
by Sonia Levitin
Life for 15-year-old Marne has never been the same since the abduction of her little sister. For one thing, her parents never want to leave her alone — which becomes a problem, given the erratic schedules of her doctor father and her fashion-designer mother. Facing a summer at camp, Marne lobbies to visit her Aunt Chaya and Uncle Yitz in Hawaii, who, unlike her own parents, are very religious — Yitz is a Hasidic rabbi. Life with these relatives is a series of surprises. Chaya and her cousin Becca dress very differently, even in the tropical heat of Hawaii. When Marne takes her cousin Nissim into town, he balks at walking with her. (”Your — legs,” the boy mumbled. ”Everybody can see your legs.”) Angry at first, Marne looks at the little boy’s distressed face, and then changes out of her shorts into something less revealing. The whole summer is a journey like that, with Marne learning to adjust to a very different culture while still longing for elements of her own (like that cute surfer she keeps running into). And while Yitz and Chaya are welcoming and unjudging — never forcing their deeply held beliefs on their teen-age niece — Marne begins to confront her own spirituality. As the summer winds down, she does some very significant growing up, mostly in a chapter where she helps her aunt and another woman prepare a body for burial. ”It’s a great mitzvah,” Chaya tells her, and Marne, at first terrified and revulsed, is ultimately moved by the beauty of the ceremony.

This kind of book — an effortless, compulsively readable peek into a different way of life — is hard to find for young girls (though it comes on the heels of the fabulous Does My Head Look Big In This?, the story of a young Muslim girl, which came out earlier this year). I read both in a single gulp, and — more important — so did my 12-year-old. I liked Marne: thoughtful, intelligent, questioning. So did my daughter. That’s pretty much the ultimate test in teen fiction. A-Tina Jordan
Recommended ages: tweens and young teens