[Screen It]

(2005) (Kurt Russell, Dakota Fanning) (PG)

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Drama: Hoping to reconnect with his daughter, a former horse trainer risks everything by helping her nurse an injured racehorse back into shape so that it can compete in a prestigious race.
Ben Crane (KURT RUSSELL) is a veteran horse trainer who's sold off most of his family's horse farm but still works for Everett Palmer (DAVID MORSE) at the local track. Much to the chagrin of his wife, Lily (ELISABETH SHUE), Ben has little time for their young daughter, Cale (DAKOTA FANNING), and certainly doesn't want his estranged horseman father, Pop (KRIS KRISTOFFERSON), who still lives next door to them, giving her any ideas of getting into the horse racing business.

That all changes when Palmer overrules Ben regarding the race status of Soņador and enters the promising filly in a race during which the horse goes down, spilling her jockey and breaking her leg. Palmer orders that she be put down right there, but Ben doesn't want Cale to see that, and later reconsiders that altogether.

That prompts Palmer to fire him, but rather than take his severance pay, Ben takes the horse with hopes of breeding her with another champion and then selling the offspring. That's a promising enough plan to convince his track workers Balon (LUIZ GUZMAN) and former jockey Manolin (FREDDY RODRIGUEZ) to join him in nursing the horse, now known as Sonya, back to health.

Yet, when the breeding plan falls through, they go for broke with their last ditch effort of getting the filly back into racing form. With their hard work from all around, and the financial help of investor Prince Sadir (ODED FEHR), Ben bets the farm on making the horse a contender in the upcoming Breeders' Cup Classic.

OUR TAKE: 4.5 out of 10
Although the races of the Triple Crown still draw in the crowds, professional horse racing in general has been experiencing a continued decline in customer attendance and wagering over the decades. Accordingly, those involved in trying to revive interest and/or drum up new fans welcome any sort of publicity they can get, be it a triple crown contender or even a movie that might boost public awareness.

Sadly, there hasn't been a winner of the former in more than a quarter of a century, while entries in the latter -- such as "Seabiscuit" -- might do well critically and financially, but are only a blip on the radar screen of helping the actual sport. The same will likely hold true for the awkwardly titled girl and her horse drama "Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story."

While it may play well to girls who are into all things horse related, its predictable nature, maudlin elements and similarity to the likes of "Racing Stripes" may hamper its efforts to show, let alone place or win at the cinematic finish line. Notwithstanding its titular claim -- that the press kit states is based on that of filly Mariah's Storm in a similar account back in the mid '90s -- the film isn't a great deal different from that other equine tale from 2005.

Sure, it's about a horse rather than a zebra, and all of the talking animal material and gross-out, comic relief flies are MIA. Yet, the story -- a girl growing up on a financially failing farm to a father who doesn't want her to have anything to do with racing but eventually gives in, all leading to the climatic race against the requisite villain -- is awfully familiar. Granted, both were likely in production at or near the same time, but you know what they say about being first out of the gate.

Young kids might not sense where the story -- written and directed by John Gatins (making his directing debut after penning "Coach Carter" and "Hardball") -- is headed, but most everyone else will as everything unfolds at a leisurely, by the books pace. Perhaps sensing that, Gatins has enveloped the production in all things Americana -- particularly the score that will likely remind some of the same from "The Natural" or any other feel good, period drama, even if this one is a contemporary tale.

All of that, when mixed with the decidedly maudlin moments will likely raise the hair on the back of cynics' necks as surely as any other grating experience, while others will probably eat it up and enjoy every delicious morsel. I fall somewhere in the middle, but that's mainly due to the cast and their decent to solid performances along with the solid tech credits.

While it initially appears that the usually precocious Dakota Fanning ("War of the Worlds," "Man on Fire") will be playing a "normal" kid (meaning someone acting her age rather than seeming like an adult trapped inside a child's body), she eventually snaps out of it. Thankfully, she doesn't goes as far as she's done in the past (precociousness seems to go down better in younger kids rather than ones nearing their teens) and instead balances that in a satisfying and engaging performance.

The best moments are those watching the realistically expressed joy that crosses her face when something good happens with her character, such as the return of her horse, and its efforts in training and then the big race. In fact, that's true for many of the performers (and their characters) who costar with her.

In true "picture equals a thousand words" fashion, the looks on the characters' faces -- particularly Kurt Russell ("Sky High," "Miracle") and Kris Kristofferson ("A Star is Born," the "Blade" movies) as the girl's damaged-goods father and estranged grandfather respectively -- are priceless and convey much more than the script manages with its predictable array of genre dialogue. If anything, the screenplay is surely the film's weakest element.

Beyond the predictable nature (including the obvious metaphor of the strained family relationships being healed along with the filly's broken leg), the dialogue is a little too on the nose. And few if any of the requisite elements -- including the one-dimensional villain played by David Morse ("Proof of Life," "The Green Mile") in near cartoon form serving as the obligatory villain who easily could have been jettisoned -- stand out enough from the norm like they might have with a little more creative effort on the part of the filmmakers.

Even so, and notwithstanding some thematic elements (including the talk of breeding as well as that of putting the horse down following a harrowing race accident and injury), the film should play well to young girls who will likely enjoy most every moment of it.

For everyone else, and notwithstanding the performances (particularly from Fanning and especially Russell who's once again found a niche he comfortably fits in) and handsome production design, it's somewhat akin to going to the track and watching a competent if otherwise unremarkable entrant that finishes the race but never stands out from the rest of the field. "Dreamer: Inspired By a True Story" rates as a 4.5 out of 10.

Reviewed October 11, 2005 / Posted October 21, 2005

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