It would be difficult to fashion a more formulaically heart-tugging girl-and-her-horse story than “Dreamer.” When a promising thoroughbred filly breaks its leg in a race, it’s saved from being put down by its noxious owner through the sacrifice of a down-and-out breeder who gives up money owed him in return for the horse, which he hopes to bring sufficiently back to health to give birth to a colt by a notable sire. The new owner’s precocious daughter falls in love with the animal, though when it proves unable to bear offspring, all seems lost. But wouldn’t you know it, the leg heals so well that the horse is able to run again, and if all goes well it will be pitted against its old owner’s prize stallion in a big race. Will it win and literally save the farm? Whaddya think? Oh, and did I mention that nursing the horse back to health will reunite the new owner and his estranged father, a horseman of the old school disappointed in his son’s failure to keep the professional faith? And that the horse’s recovery gives a second chance to a Latino jockey-turned-trainer whose confidence had been undermined by a previous accident?
This precis is already filled with a panoply of cliches, but there’s one more thing. Deferring to his daughter’s bond with the horse, her father not only buys it back when it’s been purchased by an anonymous interloper, but signs it over to her, so that she becomes the one who has to make decisions about putting the animal onto the track and must not only make the public plea to secure its acceptance for the big race but find a sponsor to put up the big bucks the race requires. Will she succeed? Again, whaddya think?
It should be clear that as a family-friendly flick “Dreamer” is so old-fashioned that you might consider it a suitable candidate for shipment to a cinematic glue factory. But though it’s no “National Velvet,” it’s not as torturous a ride as you might think. Writer-director John Gatins has furnished it with some winning scenes and, in tandem with cinematographer Fred Murphy, given the rich, green-and-auburn locations in Kentucky and Louisiana a burnished sheen. And he’s assembled a cast that’s certainly better than the material really deserves. Dakota Fanning is less mannered than she’s been in some past appearances as little Cale Crane, and if she still doesn’t seem the most natural heart-warmer, she’s likable enough. Still stronger is Kurt Russell as her dad Ben, who–as in the recent “Sky High”–shows himself at ease in these fatherly roles; he even pulls off a scene in which he reads one of his daughter’s stories in front of a PTA meeting that could have been unbearably mawkish. (Perhaps the teen roles he played in Disney movies decades ago give him some special affinity with these parts.) The rest of the cast don’t match them. Kris Kristofferson brings his familiar brand of ornery world-weariness to Grandpa, without much effect, and Elisabeth Shue is pretty much wasted as Ben’s supportive wife. On the other hand, Luis Guzman redeems himself somewhat for his turn in “Waiting” as one of the two trainers Ben brings to the ranch along with the horse, and Freddy Rodriguez (from “Six Feet Under”) exudes genuine charm as the jockey who needs to prove himself again as much as Dreamer does. (If this were fifty years ago, one might have expected somebody like Walter Brennan and Mickey Rooney in these roles.) And David Morse makes a real meanie of the former owner of the horse. It’s not his most impressive work.
“Dreamer” is said to be inspired by a true story, and the script is very loosely based on the actual tale of a filly called Mariah’s Storm, which came back from a 1993 injury to race again. But everything else in the movie is the purest fiction–and pure corn–and though Gatins and his cast serve it up as slickly as one could ask, it still comes across as more than a little stale.