Kurt Russell as Ben Crane
Dakota Fanning as Cale Crane
Kris Kristofferson as Pop Crane
Elisabeth Shue as Lily
David Morse as Palmer
Freddy Rodríguez as Manolin
Luis Guzmán as Balon
Oded Fehr as Prince Sadir
Ken Howard as Bill Ford
Holmes Osborne as Doc Fleming
Antonio Albadran as Prince Tariq
John Moyer as Security Officer
Karen Butler as Teacher
Tommy Barnes as Short Steward
Though hokey at times, John Gatins’ directorial debut is bolstered by Dakota Fanning’s winning performance and notable for heartfelt optimism likely to enchant the under-thirteen crowd.
A young girl and her father battle money woes to nurse a horse to health and train her for the high-profile Breeders Cup.
Inspired by the true story (what isn’t these days?) of a horse’s triumphant return to racing glory, “Dreamer” plays like “Seabiscuit” for the kiddie crowd, minus depression-era nostalgia and an epic scope. Setting the film in contemporary Kentucky, writer/director Gatins begins with an intimate portrait of a struggling family, and awkwardly edges into a third act that’s 90% fantasy.
Horse trainer Ben Crane (Kurt Russell) has high hopes for the thoroughbred Sonãdor, hopes that are dashed when the horse is injured in a brutal race. Since a crippled racing horse is, for all extensive purposes, worthless, everyone–even Ben’s ex-trainer father (Kris Kristofferson)–suggest Sonãdor be put down.
Sonãdor is Spanish for Dreamer, but the real dreamer in this movie is Ben’s daughter Cale (Fanning). Headstrong and precocious, she’s got horse racing in her bones, and her father doesn’t like it. After pleading for the horse’s life, Cale sneaks out in the middle of the night to feed her popsicles and whisper encouragement. Her spirit eventually proves contagious, and as father and daughter bond over Sonãdor’s surprising recovery, the broken horse brings their family together.
This is where the movie hits a few rough patches. Since the unhappy family dynamic is never firmly established, when Ben’s wife Lilly (played with as much conviction as possibly by a basically wasted Elisabeth Shue) calls Sonãdor the family’s saving grace, I didn’t buy it. And though Fanning won my sympathy with heartfelt tears, much of the dialogue is downright stilted.
A subplot involving the jockey Manolin, played by Freddy Rodriguez (“Six Feet Under”), is more believable. Like Sonãdor, the once-great athlete’s career was cut short by an injury. Now deeply spiritual, Manolin tells Cale that the accident was God’s way of saying “never ride again.” When he finally does, it’s one of the most inspiring moments in the movie.
Gatins (“Coach Carter”) has proved himself a sports screenwriter with a knack for rousing finales, and “Dreamer” really picks up towards the end. Like the estimable “North Country” (also released this Friday), “Dreamer” suffers from a middling midsection, but the perfectly plotted, marvelously photographed final horse race makes you forget (and almost forgive) earlier flaws.
Gatins’ perfect cast seems to have popped right off the pages of a storybook. David Morse gives an entirely entertaining, scenery chewing performance as Ben’s racist former boss, and Rodriguez and Luiz Guzman are terrific as Ben’s right-hand men. Shue and Fanning are perfectly matched as mother and daughter, and Russell and Kristofferson bear such a strong resemblance it’s almost eerie.
Gatins originally intended to make the protagonist a boy, but changed his mind when he saw Fanning’s performance in “Man on Fire.” She’s perfectly plucky here, with remarkable emotional range and a natural rapport with the horses that play Sonãdor. (The forthcoming “Flicka,” based on Mary O’Hara’s story, also changes its protagonist to female).
Though John Debney’s ‘original’ score doesn’t seem particularly original, Fred Murphy’s cinematography is simple and strong. Best is Brent Thomas’ production design, which is pure Americana. You can practically smell hay and sweat, and palpably see dust rising from the race track.
The Bottom Line:
Like its preternaturally mature protagonist, “Dreamer” has its head in the clouds and its heart in the right place.