Here's the thing about Dakota Fanning: when she started her career, she was consistently cast as the little girl who acted like a stuck-up adult. It was a gimmick that rode the line between creepy and obnoxious; that she appeared in a string of wretched messes - "I Am Sam," "Uptown Girls," "The Cat In the Hat," "Hide and Seek" - only compounded the fact that I couldn't stand the kid.
Ah, but then came "War of the Worlds," and Steven Spielberg had the notion of allowing this little girl to actually act like a little girl. It worked. Gone was the aggravating wise-beyond-her-years act, replaced by an honest performance in a role that finally figured out what to do with the young star. And now comes "Dreamer," which finds a perfect home for Fanning's graces: it's a huggable girl-and-her-horse yarn that allows Dakota to just be Dakota, with dazzling results.
It helps, of course, that Fanning is accompanied by some of the most trustworthy names in Hollywood. Kurt Russell stars as her father; Kris Kristofferson is grandpa; David Morse is the smug, millionaire villain of the story. We also get Elizabeth Shue as the mom, Freddy Rodríguez and Luis Guzmán as two lovable horse trainers, and Oded Fehr as a mysterious prince. This is one solid cast - a cast which helps elevate what might have otherwise been a forgettable kiddie flick to what it ultimately becomes: an enchanting family drama that, despite its dependence on the familiar, is endlessly watchable.
The film's subtitle reads "inspired by a true story," which is Hollywood-speak for "We read an article about a horse once, and this story is kinda like that." The real-life horse that inspired the movie is Mariah's Storm, who, at the age of two, broke a leg but went on to win several races. "Dreamer," written and directed by John Gatins (the co-writer of "Coach Carter" who makes his directorial debut here), ups the drama. The horse here, named Soñador, is taken in by grumpy trainer Ben Crane (Russell) after she takes a fall in a race - one that Ben tries to keep her from racing due to health concerns, and one that slimy owner Palmer (Morse) insists she race anyway. Ben's daughter, Cale (Fanning), takes a liking to Soñador, and although money is tight, and although the stubbornness of three generations of Cranes - Ben's had a falling out with his father (Kristofferson) - will create some family friction, all will work out by the end, when Cale enters Soñador in the Breeder's Cup. Mariah's Storm came in ninth place at that race; will Soñador fare any better?
(Side note: the screenplay is smart enough to mention Mariah's Storm in one scene, as if to say, yes, this movie borrows from that true tale, but this is not that horse's story.)
The whole thing plays out under a steady stream of predictability, and yet Gatins is able to rise above the cliché and make something special here. It is a typical racehorse movie, following all the expected beats (even adding a bit of adventure, such as the scene in which Cale becomes stuck on a runaway Soñador). Where Gatins goes right is in how he insists on keeping his story about character above all else. Watch the interplay between the four Cales: this is a drama that goes deeper than most family films, with a gentle look at conflict and redemption within one family. The screenplay is one that gives the actors plenty of room to build their roles, bounce off each other, and find wonderful ways of bringing their characters into reality. Where most children's films only bother with the surface, "Dreamer" wants more. This is a story about people, not plot points.
By doing this, Gatins buys himself some leeway in following a formula. Consider the plotline about the assistant trainer (Rodríguez) who gave up a career as a jockey following a nasty accident on the track. The moment the script reveals his past, we know exactly what his future will hold. And yet we don't mind, because it's all done so gently, with great love and care for the characters as people, so the final scenes find him not where we predict him to be, but where we deeply want him to be. They may be the same spot, but there's actually a big difference between the two - and Gatins always makes sure that his film falls on the right side of that fence.
It's this gentle touch that makes "Dreamer" such a winning experience. By getting so much out of the little moments, it manages to join the ranks of delightful horse dramas such as "Black Beauty," "The Black Stallion," and "National Velvet." It is a movie that will captivate children, yes, but it will also capture the hearts of the grown-ups, too.
DreamWorks is releasing "Dreamer" in two separate releases, original widescreen and pan-and-scan full screen. Reviewed here is the widescreen disc.
The anamorphic widescreen (2.40:1) image is simply wonderful, as solid as one would expect from a modern production. It even looks better than I remember it looking at the multiplex (which may be saying more about the multiplex, but still). I'm not even sure if the lush Kentucky countryside looks this good in real life.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack is equally up to par, crisp and rich. A serviceable 2.0 stereo track is also available, as is a 5.1 French track. Optional subtitles are offered in English, French, and Spanish.
John Gatins appears on a commentary track that's chatty and likable, albeit fairly average. In a nice touch, the disc offers English, French, and Spanish subtitles for the commentary. (These subtitles are not listed on either the setup or special features sections, but a click of the subtitle button on your remote will get you there.)
"Who Is Mariah's Storm?" (5 minutes) is a primer on the horse that put the "inspired by" in the movie's subtitle. Hosted by Gatins, it's simple and light (and obviously made with kids in mind), but interesting enough to work.
"On the Set: Working With Thoroughbreds" (11 min.) is exactly what you think it is, a look at the horse trainers and their role in the film's creation. Even with all the standard cast interviews and filler footage from the movie, it's surprisingly not nearly as fluffy as it sounds. Plus, it's got a guy with a killer handlebar moustache, and how cool is that?
"Taking Care of Horses" (5 min.) is a quick, rather empty rundown on horse grooming, padded with clips from the film and interviews with the cast about how much fun it would be to own a horse. I'm convinced this was included just to make sure that any girl who hasn't yet begged her parents for a horse will start now.
"Meet the 'Dreamer' Dream Cast" (17 min.) is your typical interview-heavy EPK-style behind-the-scenes featurette, the kind where everyone tells of how great it was to work with everyone else, what went into the building of the script, etc., etc. Nothing too memorable here, worth watching once before you ignore it forever.
Two brief deleted scenes are offered, both in anamorphic widescreen (2.40:1). They're interesting enough for a quick peek, but it's clear these were cut to help speed up the story. (That said, you can get to see how top notch the cast is even in scenes that don't quite cut it.)
A music video for "Dreamer," sung by Bethany Dillon, is tossed in to help sell the soundtrack; the song's not too shabby at all, while the video is pretty generic, just shots of Dillon playing her guitar on a farm intercut with scenes from the film. Presented in non-anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen.
An nine-minute clip of Gatins being interviewed trackside on TVG, a horse racing cable TV network, finishes up the bulk of extras. When Gatins gets into talking about the race that's about to air, we can see how much he really knows his stuff. (For those interested, you even get to watch the complete race, too.)
Rounding out the set is a stack of trailers for other DreamWorks and Universal releases. (There is no menu list for these previews.) The disc starts up by playing a completely different set of previews, which can be skipped by pressing the menu button on your remote.
Note: All of the features (except where noted) are presented in a 1.33:1 full frame format, with scenes from the film letterboxed at a 1.85:1 aspect ratio - perhaps as a compromise for using the same extras on both the widescreen and pan-and-scan versions of this disc.
Maybe I'm just a sucker for such fare, and maybe your cynical side will have you balking at the movie's sappier moments, but I'll step up anyway and give this one a full Highly Recommended rating. Heck, just try to watch dad read the story Cale wrote about him without getting just a little misty. See? Can't do it, can you?