"The Black Stallion Returns" whinnies its way into your heart, nudge-nudging like a pony after a carrot. You can't say nay to it. Unlike "The Black Stallion," a mostly visual first encounter between boy and horse, the second-generation movie relies heavily on a plot studded with themes of courage, perseverance and honor.

Returning with animal star Cass-Ol,e are Kelly Reno as Alec and Teri Garr as his mother in a blink-and-you'll-miss-her role. Also back are "The Black Stallion" editor Robert Dalva as director and Francis Ford Coppola as producer.

Italian Carlo di Palma directs the photography -- not the lush stuff of the prequel's Caleb Deschanel, but shot through with the colors of the Moroccan desert where much of the return was shot. A horse-nabbing set in America, which sets Alec on the road to Morocco, was filmed in Italy where the boy begins his search for the Berber king who took his beloved horse.

After a jerky start, we're off on a grand adventure -- a "Raiders of the Lost Horse" -- with Alec and Berber prince Raj (Vincent Spano) pursued by a pair of wicked Uruk tribesmen. They're one-dimensional, slapstick villains straining for laughs, not funny or scary unless you've trained on Saturday cartoons.

The two boys, at first guarded by a fierce bodyguard (Woody Strode), are left on their own when their protector is captured by the Uruk. As they cross the desert to reach Raj's home and Alec's horse, shared trials cement a model friendship, which will be tested, nose-to-nose, in a tribal race.

Alec, like Reno who plays him, has grown taller, but still has the same freckled baby face and disarming delivery. And he's a talented horseman to boot, saving co-star Jodi Thelen (a Berber princess) from steering Cass-Ol'e into a thorn tree.

The stallion traveled to North Africa with two stunt doubles, a pretty white filly and a chestnut to rival him in the climactic race. Still, some will say there's not enough horseplay. It's true: The filmmakers consciously avoided a sequel based on the old formula. Though handicapped as second in a series, odds are 3-1 that "The Black Stallion Returns" will be a winner. THE BLACK STALLION RETURNS -- At area theaters.