Stuck with a needlessly long and contrived title that practically screams to be taken seriously, "Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story" is an antiquated family drama so conventional and safe that any suspense it might have had in stronger hands instead comes off as one foregone conclusion after the next. Written and directed by John Gatins (making his filmmaking debut after penning 2005's equally hackneyed "Coach Carter
"), the film is a strange beast to behold, and that isn't referring to the horse of the title. Constantly feeling as if something critical is missing, the piecesfrom the writing to the characters to the stock familial relationshipsnever come together to create a fully-formed motion picture. By the end, there is nary a scene worth remembering.
When prize-winning thoroughbred Sonador is injured during a race and breaks his leg, Kentucky vet trainer Ben Crane's (Kurt Russell) reluctance to put the animal down in front of young daughter Cale (Dakota Fanning) leads to him quitting his job. As a part of his severance pay, snarling stable owner Palmer (David Morse) agrees to hand over Sonador into Ben's care. As the horse's condition gradually improves and Cale spends more and more time with Sonador and her father, she plots to try and defy all the odds that say Sonador will never race again by entering him into the exclusive Breeders Cup.
The dialogue is more often clunky than not and the trajectory of the story is both predictable and tedious (2003's "Seabiscuit
" was a similar, stronger effort), but smack-dab in the center of "Dreamer" is invaluable child wonder Dakota Fanning (2005's "War of the Worlds
"). The best actor of her age group in, well, maybe ever, if Fanning alone cannot altogether save the movies she is in, she at least works to make them more tolerable. This was the case with 2005's otherwise mediocre "Hide and Seek
," and this is the case with "Dreamer." As the indomitable Cale Crane, Fanning shines just as brightly as usual, albeit with a more one-dimensional role than usual, managing to elicit big smiles on the faces of viewers just through a line delivery or stunningly real body motion. This is all the more notable because, save for Fanning, there isn't a whole lot to enjoy or get involved in.
As the tried-and-true story of the friendship between a child and animal, director John Gatins misses the mark by a mile. For one, little believable connection is ever made between Cale and Sonador (Spanish for "Dreamer"), and second, Sonador is just about as lifeless as an animal character can get outside of being dead. Lacking in charm and mostly just standing around doing nothing, Sonador as he relates to Cale is one of the major pitfalls that, if done correctly, might have strengthened the material around it. When called upon to do something, as when Sonador gets spooked and recklessly takes off with a frightened Cale clinging to his back, it is usually of the ham-fisted, book-of-cliches variety. It deserves to be mentioned that the stunt double for Fanning in this sequence is hilariously glaring, looking like a grown man with a long blonde wig on.
"Dreamer" also yearns to be a heartfelt father-daughter tale, as Cale and Ben grow closer through their combined interest in horses. Fanning and Kurt Russell (2005's "Sky High
"), the latter acting a bit too hard-edged for his own good, share an okay chemistry, but they don't get enough scenes to really explore their relationship in a meaningful way. Likewise, the growth between Ben and his own estranged father (Kris Kristofferson) as the story progresses is pure formula without depth. Also turning up is the always-welcome Elisabeth Shue (2005's "Mysterious Skin
") as Lily, Cale's loyal mother, whose role is too thankless for the actress' ample talents.
The type of movie where every emotional moment is scored to an overbearing instrumental cue that tells the audience how they should be feeling, "Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story" is an ineffectual, thoroughly banal affair. Being released close to the same time as an infinitely superior and more original family film, "Little Manhattan
," there is simply no reason for anyoneparents, children, or otherwiseto seek this piece of saccharine hokum out. Dakota Fanning is marvelous no matter the role, but she has made better films in the past, and will undoubtedly be making better ones in the near-future. In a couple years, the forgettable "Dreamer" will barely be a footnote on her résumé.