Best known as the star of Malcolm in the Middle (TV3, 8pm), Frankie Muniz provides the voice for an orphan zebra named Stripes who, despite his short legs and black-and-white coat, grows up thinking he is a thoroughbred race horse.

The 19-year-old millionaire actor had a run-in with a couple of zebras at Sydney's Taronga Zoo in 2002 and said the experience came in handy.

"When I was in Australia I went to a zoo and they let me feed all the animals, but the zoo keepers wouldn't let me feed the zebras," he said.

"They're pretty mean, apparently. There were lions and tigers, but they were, like, 'Stay away from the zebras'."

Racing Stripes is set in Kentucky, the centre of American horseracing, but the film was shot in South Africa. The family comedy is similar to the Australian Academy Award-winner Babe.

The stars are real animals voiced by humans - Muniz, Dustin Hoffman (Tucker the Shetland pony), Whoopi Goldberg (Franny the wise old goat), Mandy Moore (the beautiful filly Sandy), rap star Snoop Dogg (lazy bloodhound Lightning) and David Spade (Scuzz the manic horsefly).

Stripes is ridiculed by a stable of spoiled racehorses for trying to race them.

Muniz said that 2002 meeting with the feisty Australian zebras helped him to provide the voice of the determined Stripes.

"They were with the giraffes," Muniz said. "The two giraffes came over, but whenever the zebras came over the zoo keepers would have to get them away. It was so weird. You think they're like horses, but they're mean."

One of the human stars, 15-year-old New York-born actress Hayden Panettiere, had to learn how to ride zebras just like a jockey rides a racehorse.

But Muniz said no amount of money would be enough to coax him to jump on the back of an unpredictable zebra. "No way," he said.

On screen

* Who: Frankie Muniz

* What: The voice of the zebra named Stripes in the family film Racing Stripes

* When and where: Opens at cinemas tomorrow