Is Dakota Fanning the only actress in Hollywood under age 15? It certainly seemed that way in 2005, when the she appeared with Tom Cruise in War of the Worlds, Glenn Close in Nine Lives, Robert De Niro in Hide and Seek, the usual complement of Disney talents in Lilo & Stitch 2: Stitch Has a Glitch, and Kurt Russell in Dreamer. With that kind of output, it's tempting to compare the slight blonde to Shirley Temple, the Depression-era child star who was equally ubiquitous, cranking out four movies per year from 1935-37. But Dreamer co-star Kris Kristofferson says she reminds him of Bette Davis reincarnated, and that's not a bad comparison. Fanning is as wizened as she is waiflike, a pro who carries the film every bit as much as Sonador, the fictional filly whose name is Spanish for "dreamer."
Like that spunky thoroughbred, Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story starts quickly out of the gate, gets lame and plodding, but recovers in time to finish strong. It may not become the classic that first-time director John Gatins was aiming for, but his obvious love of horses and thoroughbred racing, combined with strong performances and gorgeous cinematography, are ultimately enough to compensate for a swayback script.
But the subtitle is misleading. Gatins says he began with the idea of a broken-down horse trainer, then added the broken-down horse, and only later discovered that he was trying to tell the story of real-life racer Mariah's Storm. Film lovers will see obvious similarities between Dreamer and Seabiscuit, which also told of a horse's comeback from a bad leg and the curative effect that the animal had on his trainer, his jockey, and his owner. This one is billed as a family film, but younger children may get restless during the first act. After an initially exciting opening, it's mostly dialogue until the 46-minute mark. At that point the action picks up and the momentum starts to build again.
Dreamer has an all-star cast, but because Gatins chose to focus mostly on the relationship between a jaded trainer and his daughter (Russell and Fanning) and also the trainer and his estranged father (Kristofferson), the other talents are underused. The prime example is Elisabeth Shue, who plays the wife and mother. Lilly seems superfluous, living in the house but not really interacting or emotionally connecting with her husband and daughter. More also could have been done with the ruined jockey Manolin (Freddy Rodriguez, Six Feet Under), who plays one of the horse's handlers, and Luis Guzman (Traffic), who plays the other. But Gatins steered clear of subplots and stayed with the story of a horse spared a bullet by a girl who believed that the family's once-proud horse farm needed a horse, just as the trainer's father felt that his son should "get back in the game" instead of working for a wealthy stable. The structure is pretty standard Dreamworks/Disney stuff, right down to the antagonist (David Morse), though it's played straight rather than for laughs.
Dreamer is presented in "enhanced" 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen, and while it's not high-def, the picture still does justice to the location filming. For a single-disc release, there are some nice bonus features, though all of them are fairly short. One tells the story of "the racehorse who inspired the film," while another zeroes in on cast members and gives background on Gatins' interest in doing a horse racing film. (He worked at a stable as a youth, and grew up in a racing environment.) We also see a little of cinematographer Fred Murphy (Hoosiers, October Sky) in action on location in Kentucky and Louisianaincluding a racetrack that was later destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. For the curious, there are short features on working with horses and horse care, with lead horse wrangler Rusty Hendrickson explaining how they worked with a number of horses who played Sonador. Rounding out the extras are a Bethany Dillon music video and a pair of deleted scenes that explain more about the father-daughter and father-son relationships. The film's bottom line, as Kristofferson says, is to "love your children, regardless of what happens in life."
PARENTS' NOTE: Dreamer is wholesome fare, rated PG for "brief mild language," meaning a handful of "hells" and "damns" that come mostly from Kristofferson's character. But it could be an empowering film for young girls, because Fanning's character is given free rein to make her own decisions regarding the racehorse, and she holds her own against the "bad" adults.