Judge Michael Rankins bet his money on the bobtail nag.
"You are a great champion. When you ran, the ground shook, the sky opened, and mere mortals parted. Parted the way to victory, where you'll meet me in the winner's circle, where I'll put a blanket of flowers on your back."—Cale Crane (Dakota Fanning) to her horse Soñador
It's about a father. And a daughter. And a horse. And redemption.
I'm getting all Misty of Chincoteague just thinking about it.
Facts of the Case
Veteran racehorse trainer Benjamin Crane (Kurt Russell, Miracle) has a gift with thoroughbreds, in a Horse Whisperer sort of way. Ben does not, however, have a knack for business, which is why his broken-down farm perpetually teeters on the brink of bankruptcy.
When Ben is hired by the venal Mr. Palmer (David Morse, TV's Hack) to train a promising filly named Soñador (Spanish for "Dreamer," because naming the movie Soñador would only confuse that portion of the audience that doesn't know a tilde from a tire iron), the horseman knows he's looking at something special. Palmer, however, only sees Soñador as a commodity, insisting that she race in front of his financial backers even on a day when she's skittish and clearly favoring one leg. That leg shatters during a gruesome mid-race accident, apparently condemning Soñador to a guided tour of the glue factory.
Instead, Ben buys the crippled filly and takes her home to rehabilitate into a brood mare, with aid from his winsome daughter Cale (Dakota Fanning, Man On Fire) and his estranged father, "Pop" (Kris Kristofferson, The Jacket). When fate tosses yet another stone into the soup pot—Soñador is infertile, and thus useless for breeding—the Cranes are left with only one option to save their farm, and their family: Nurse Soñador back to racing health, and enter her in the prestigious Breeder's Cup Classic.
It's rare that a film can be described as predictable, derivative, simplistic, and saccharine, and also be described as a good movie. Dreamer: Inspired By A True Story—and yes, the latter subheading is part of the film's official title—is just such a rare film. Nothing happens in Dreamer (thus abbreviated herein to save my typing fingers, and your eyeballs, from needless strain) that anyone who has ever seen a Hollywood movie about horse racing (or practically any other sport, for that matter) will not be able to predict after the first five minutes. The film will remind you of Seabiscuit and Racing Stripes and dozens of other pictures in a line stretching back at least to National Velvet. It presents a sweet, simple story, told in the most straightforward and prosaic of terms.
But it got me. There, I said it.
If there's any truth to Roger Ebert's famous maxim that how a film works is more important than its subject matter, Dreamer is the poster child for that truth. Even though it's about events and characters we've seen dozens of times before in dozens of other movies, it's winningly competent in being about those things. It demands nothing but attention from the audience, and it promises nothing except easygoing family entertainment in return. It compels that attention, and it delivers the entertainment. Some days, you just can't ask for more than that.
Screenwriter John Gatins, who is quietly carving out a career in Hollywood cranking out unpretentious, feel-good, sports-based films like this one (and his most recent efforts, Samuel L. Jackson's Coach Carter and Keanu Reeves's Hardball), helms his directorial debut exactly like someone who watched Seabiscuit three dozen times, studied every nuance, and said to himself, "I could do that." Dreamer lacks Seabiscuit's epic sweep and more ethereal visual and emotional elements, but its heart is in the exact same place as its illustrious predecessor. It might be oversimplifying to say that Dreamer is just Seabiscuit with a cute little girl thrown in, but it also would be pretty close to the reality.
That cute little girl, incidentally, continues to impress. I'm not a great fan of most child actors, but Dakota Fanning possesses a combination of powerhouse acting chops and natural star quality last seen onscreen when Jodie Foster began her career. Stereotypical though her role might be, Fanning never steps wrong, and never tosses the camera any of that ain't-I-precious attitude that's far too common in movie kids her age. She dominates the screen without begging for the attention, remaining thoroughly believable whether expressing childlike joy or markedly adult intelligence.
The rest of the cast is equally fine. Kurt Russell has aged into an understated, mature charm that he wears as comfortably as a well-traveled pair of dungarees. Kris Kristofferson delivers his usual crusty goodness as Russell's cantankerous father. Even the supporting roles are capably filled by such reliable talents as Luis Guzman (as Ben Crane's assistant trainer, who dresses as though auditioning for a role in That '70s Show), Elisabeth Shue (radiant in her too-few scenes as mother Crane—as my teenaged daughter observed, Shue hasn't aged in the nearly 20 years since Adventures In Babysitting), and David Morse (who manages not to send his villainous character over the top with Dick Dastardly histrionics). In fact, in terms of believability, the Cranes may be one of the most brilliantly assembled families in film casting history—Russell and Kristofferson bear an incredible resemblance to one another, and Fanning could easily be taken for Shue's daughter in real life.
Gatins's script parses out as though he stopped off at the House of Clichés one afternoon and ordered one of everything. He does, however, have a recorder's ear for dialogue, and he knows how to keep the narrative gliding smoothly forward even as it recycles one familiar plot point after another. Is it challenging, original writing? Well, no. Would I want a steady diet of films with scripts like it? Not unless I want to be prescribed a regimen of cinematic insulin before too long. But there's a place in entertainment for inspiring, uplifting motion pictures the whole family can watch together, without anyone feeling the need for either a brain transplant or a shower. Dreamer fills that void with charm and grace. The human actors make delightful company, and the equine actors are magnificent to look at. If you don't demand more from the film than that, you won't be disappointed.
It sounds like a joke to say that Dreamer: Inspired By A True Story comes to DVD courtesy of the dreamers at DreamWorks, but since it's true, I know you'll take it in stride. The 2.40:1 anamorphic transfer on the widescreen version is lush and pristine, with a nice "big screen" richness, perfect coloration, and absolute clarity. The sound quality rises to the standard set by the video, offering an immersive soundfield and active surrounds, especially during the racing sequences.
Director-screenwriter John Gatins steps into the recording booth for a friendly, comfortable audio commentary. Gatins shows genuine—and well-earned—enthusiasm for his maiden directing effort, and gives an engaging chronicle of the film's development. To his credit, Gatins is quick to pay generous homage to the films that influenced his work, especially Seabiscuit. Gatins also appears in a nine-minute interview segment from the horse racing news program Trackside Live, although his remarks here mostly reiterate points from the commentary track.
Four featurettes provide insight into the creation of Dreamer, ranging from a fairly routine behind-the-scenes puff piece ("Meet the Dreamer Dream Cast") to a fascinating look ("On the Set: Working With Thoroughbreds") at the veteran animal trainers responsible for the film's equine complement (veterans Rusty Hendrickson and Rex Peterson were also the wranglers behind Seabiscuit). "Who Is Mariah's Storm?" tells the story of a real-life horse whose career helped inspire Dreamer, albeit less closely than the film's extended title might suggest. "Taking Care of Horses" is a five-minute demonstration of a handler—you're way ahead of me—taking care of horses.
A pair of deleted scenes totaling about five minutes in running time add little to the completed film, but are interesting as further examples of the actors' craft. Bethany Dillon, a country-pop singer whose grating, breathy voice wears out its welcome in track-record time, contributes a sappy ballad in a superfluous music video that less discerning kiddies may enjoy. DreamWorks rounds out the proceedings with enough movie trailers to—you're ahead of me again—choke a horse.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Two tiny points nagged at me throughout the film. Since, despite its claim of being "inspired by a true story," Dreamer really is a work of fiction, why didn't John Gatins just name the horse "Dreamer" if that's what he wanted to call the movie? And why, when the film's script veers so far from the reality of Mariah's Storm as to make the source nearly unrecognizable, insist on tacking that spurious claim onto the title of the film?
"True story" or not, Dreamer dashes to the finish line with the heart of a champion. It won't surprise you or shock you, but it will provide a solid evening of wholesome entertainment that the youngsters will clamor to repeat over and over again. With a superlative cast and a familiar plot that flows like fresh lemonade, Dreamer is movie night comfort food for the whole family. And that's no horse hockey.
Guilty of swiping story points from half the horse racing flicks in the Hollywood archives, but granted time off for good behavior and community service.
Saddle my trusty steed, bailiff—I'm headed for the barn.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary Featuring Writer-Director John Gatins
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