Cinema Signal:

Insider's Guide To Horseracing
by T.A. Landers
by Jack Coughlin

. "Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story"

It used to be that heart-tuggers were the turf of Disney, Inc. but this one was won by DreamWorks for their share of the triple hanky crowd. In the success shadow of "Seabisquit," it's well calculated for the uncritical following this girl-loves-horse production will pull in and it provides an age-appropriate vehicle for a child actress hitting an awkward age when showcase parts might be thinning a bit.

Old school horse trainer Ben Crane (Kurt Russell) has a ranch that's being sold off, an eager-to-learn daughter Cale (Dakota Fanning), an understanding wife (Elisabeth Shue), and an irascible father (Kris Kristofferson) who lives in his own quarters on the property and is none too happy about the slow disintegration of his glory days. Crane also has Sonya, a young filly with lots of promise that he's training for boss Palmer (David Morse), a cold man short on humanity and long on pleasing the horse's owners at any cost.

When Crane detects a weakness in Sonya's leg he advises against running her, but Palmer insists and the horse trips on the track. Not a man to admit a mistake, Palmer fires Crane and, since he doesn't have all the money to pay him off, gives him the injured horse. Cale is mighty pleased, but Pa advises putting the luckless animal down. The little budding horse gal wins and immediately bonds with Sonya through midnight snacks during her convalescence -- something dad has forbidden.

With his severance pay, Crane employs his jockey Balon (Freddy Rodriguez) and assistant trainer Balon (Luis Guzman) to continue their work with him. Their side-line job is to train Cale in horsemanship and fatherly discipline, as well.

Sonya is cured and re-trained, then entered and lost in a claiming race, before her eventual return and fantasy comeback as a chosen entrant in the Breeder's Cup. Everyone is just so good, here. The big job now is to come up with the crushing entrance fees, but no worry. That guy out in the other ranch house is going to end his hermetic ways.

For me, Kurt Russell's concentrated warmth and right-mindedness in this role merely proves what a solid presence he can provide. In the early parts, Fanning seems awkward and play-acty, but comes into her own when the meat of the story fills out her acting chops with more to hang her teeth on (oh, these metaphors!). Shue's role is merely housedressing and Kristofferson keeps himself quite alive in the aging codger category.

When you train your sights on the nursery crowd as writer-director John Gatins has done here, you don't let anyone go home disappointed. Lots of wet hankies, sure, but from cries of joy. Rest easy: these are the tracks of wish-fullfillment fantasy and all who come through the turnstiles will wear a Disneyish happy face.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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