Sired by Seabiscuit and Old Yeller, Dreamer is a journeyman pony with a lot of heart but not a lot of flash. Not showing us anything we haven’t seen before, it still runs a solid race and might even place or show on a good night. Okay, I think I’ve stretched that metaphor about as far as it will go without it snapping back and decapitating somebody.
This is a warm, endearing film that hides its lack of originality with sincerity, solid actors and gorgeous cinematography. Of course, if it abused the notion of being “inspired by a true story” any further, it might be in violation of the Geneva Convention, because other than a horse breaking its leg and making a miraculous comeback, everything in this film is pure Hollywood fiction. Well, that’s not exactly fair. The end credits were also completely true. This film really was written and directed by John Gatins and it really does star Dakota Fanning, Kurt Russell, Elizabeth Shue and Kris Kristofferson.
Russell plays Ben Crane, a down-on-his-luck horse trainer working for Everett Palmer (David Morse), the obligatory venal corporate villain. Palmer’s moustache is too short to twirl, but Morse does the best he can. Ben is one of those beaten down guys who want to keep their kids, in this case a precocious young daughter named Cale (Fanning), as far as possible from the life that more or less broke their hearts. Unfortunately, that means keeping his daughter at arm’s length even though she hero worships him and wants desperately to follow in his footsteps. His wife, Lil (Shue) works as a waitress to keep a roof over their head while trying to hold the family together. Ben is also estranged from his father (Kristofferson), who used to own the farm they live on.
Ben doesn’t think that Palmer’s horse, Soñador, should run but the owner overrules him and Sonya, as the mare is called, falls and breaks its leg. An outraged Ben quits his job and accepts the broken horse as his severance, saving Soñador from being put down. He has dreams of nursing the horse back to life and breeding her with thoroughbred stallions, dreams that go up in smoke when Sonya proves to be infertile, leaving him with a worthless horse and a mortgage nearing foreclosure.
Inevitably, Sonya starts to show signs that her leg is feeling better and the vet confirms that her leg has healed as strong as ever. Ben starts to train her again but loses her in her first claiming race. Realizing how much the horse meant to Cale, as well as how it brought he and his daughter closer, Ben buys Sonya back in Cale’s name, making the girl a horse owner at the tender age of however old Dakota Fanning is.
This is one of those movies that within fifteen minutes, you know how things are going to play out. It’s inevitable that Sonya will challenge Everett Palmer’s new horse in the big race. When Ben’s exercise rider, Manny (Freddy Rodriguez) tells Cale how he used to be a jockey until he took a bad fall, you know who will be riding Sonya in that big race.
One of the reasons this by-the-numbers story works is because the filmmakers were smart enough to populate it with actors who bring an automatic gravity and depth to paper-thin roles. Kurt Russell brings a little bit of Herb Brooks from Miracle to the role of Ben and it’s a perfect fit to the character. Kristofferson has played so many roles like Pop Crane that he feels natural and effortless in the role.
And, of course, there is Dakota Fanning, who seems to have been in more films lately than were actually made in the last year. This is a pretty standard Dakota Fanning role and she could play Cale Crane in her sleep. Fortunately, Fanning is still young and enthusiastic enough not to be tempted by that. This girl is having the career Drew Barrymore would have had if she hadn’t been sidetracked into Hollywood’s fast lane and rehab. Dakota might even be having the kind of career Jodie Foster would be having if she were coming up right now. There is no other actor in her age group who could a carry a movie like this on her shoulders and she does it without breaking a sweat.
Even though I’ve seen pieces of Dreamer in a hundred other movies, it did win me over, and your preteen kids, who haven’t seen those hundred other movies yet, will probably love it.
Rant: I was kind of puzzled by the inclusion of “Inspired by a True Story” in the title, and not because the story wasn’t really true. How did a fluffy marketing tagline wind up in the title of this film? What’s next: Rambo IV: A Rip-Roaring Adventure? Spider-Man 3: Better Than the First Two? Deuce Bigalow: Martian Gigolo: It Doesn’t Suck As Much As You Think? I hope this is not going to start any kind of trend.