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Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story

How precocious is Dakota Fanning? She actually once told an interviewer that she "always wanted to be an actress, ever since I was a little girl." Which might prompt a call from her agent, reminding her that she still is a little girl, which is precisely the point of her career to date, and that she might want to sound just a little less sophisticated when doing junket interviews, even though she's the only 11-year-old on earth who's played opposite Tom Cruise, Denzel Washington, Robert De Niro, and Sean Penn. A child actress with Fanning's appeal hasn't been seen since Shirley Temple, who was the highest-grossing star of the 1930s — a fact that surprises most folks, until they realize that an extraordinarily talented child actor is both rare and somewhat mesmerizing. And if Fanning hopes to continue working well into adulthood, she could find no better mentor than her co-star in Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story (2005), Kurt Russell, who survived previous careers as a child actor and baseball player to become one of Hollywood's most durable leading men. Russell stars as Ben Crane, a veteran Kentucky horse trainer who's allowed his family's horse farm to lie silent while he works thoroughbreds for a wealthy businessman, Everett Palmer (David Morse), who oversees a massive breeding operation. However, Ben and Palmer part company over a single horse, Sonya, who is badly injured during a race after Ben's warnings went unheeded. Palmer offers him $6,000 cash to disappear, but Ben demands his full wages, and before long he's Sonya's new owner, despite the fact that her broken shin-bone makes her worth little more than a bullet. The filly is a lost cause, which is not lost upon Ben's employees, jockey Manolin (Freddy Rodríguez) and trainer Balon (Luis Guzmán), although his wife Lily (Elisabeth Shue) and daughter Cale (Fanning) are glad to see at least one horse in the empty barn. Even Ben's distant father, 'Pop' Crane (Kris Kristofferson), take an interest in Sonya and her breeding potential. But after plans to mate her with a champion stallion fall through, they discover that Sonya's leg has healed, and that she still can run.

Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story was not a huge hit for DreamWorks and screenwriter John Gatins, who got his first shot at directing this piece. It was able to earn back its reported $32 million budget, but one suspects it might have done better with a different title and a little less Dakota Fanning on the marquee. There's no getting around the fact that girls and horses go together like hugs and sunshine, and having both "dream" and "inspire" in the title doesn't exactly draw a cross-demographic into cineplexes. Dreamer fits well into a "family film" niche, but its appeal actually is a bit broader than that, mostly thanks to Gatins' script and solid leading work by Kurt Russell. Dreamer is Russell's film from start to finish, and it's strongest in its opening scenes, as we meet the Crane family, gather some backstory on their horse-breeding legacy and turbulent father-son dynamics, and watch the arrival of Sonya (whose proper name is "Sonador"). The script is smart enough to keep Fanning present, but also on the sidelines of activity, thus asking the audience to absorb this complicated little universe of familial rift and equestrian esoterics through the eyes of a child. Fanning is far from precocious in these moments, as she secretly feeds popsicles to the harnessed Sonya and follows her father virtually everywhere. And if the second half starts to seem more about Fanning than any other character (complete with her preternatural sophistication), then at least Gatins hits all of the right notes by getting excellent work from his cast, refusing to water down some of the more complex details of horse breeding and racing, and rarely going too far with his characters (especially true with Russell and Kristofferson — Ben and Pop are proud, stubborn men who sometimes say things by not saying them, and their reconciliation is both funny and note-perfect). As with Seabiscuit (2003), horse-lovers will find a lot to like in Dreamer, which is assured to have a loyal following on home video over the years. Even if the movie's final scenes aren't hard to imagine, Gatins offers enough material to keep the story worth watching, and he's careful to ensure that his movie isn't about a magical miracle horse, but instead a sweet story about a father and a daughter, and the choices they make to restore their fractured family.

DreamWorks' DVD release of Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story offers a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with both Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround audio. Supplements include a commentary with writer-director John Gatins, as well as the featurettes "Who's Mariah's Storm?" (5 min.), "On the Set: Working with Thoroughbreds" (11 min.), "Taking Care of Horses" (5 min.), and "Meet the Dreamer Dream Cast" (8 min.), two deleted scenes, a music video, and a "Trackside Live" segment with Gatins (8 min.). Keep-case.

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