3 stars (out of four)
Let's get this out of the way. "Dreamer" is not a movie for anyone who has ever been accused of being cynical and/or immune to the charms of doe-eyed farm animals.
If, on the other hand, you loved "The Black Stallion," you're not creeped out by Dakota Fanning and you can tolerate a phoned-in performance from Kris Kristofferson, "Dreamer" is right up your alley.
Gorgeously shot amidst the verdant hills of Kentucky horse country, this is an underdog (underhorse?) story about the redemptive power of love and all that jazz. Does it sound like a movie we've all seen before? Of course it does. Because we have. But that's the beauty of "Dreamer:" This is a comfort movie, the cinematic equivalent of macaroni and cheese. It's precisely what we expectno more, no lessand in that capacity, it is supremely successful.
Dakota Fanning plays Cale Crane, the eerily mature daughter of Ben and Lilly Crane (a game Kurt Russell and the uber-winsome Elisabeth Shue) and granddaughter of Pop Crane (Kristofferson, whose monotone crabbiness seems less like an acting choice and more like the manifestation of extreme boredom.) The family's horse farm, once filled with champion steeds, has crumbled to the point of nonexistence, forcing Ben to work as a trainer for the evil Palmer (a sinister David Morse). When one of Palmer's prize fillies breaks her leg in a race, only Cale's interference keeps her father from putting the horse down.
That horse is Sonador, Spanish for "Dreamer." Bred to be a champion, Sonador is harnessed into the Crane's stable as Ben and Cale wait for the vet's appraisal of her bum leg. Cale, of course, falls in love with the horse, surreptitiously feeding her Popsicles through the slats of her stall, running in from the school bus every afternoon. In the meantime, Ben and Pop revisit their myriad issues, Lilly informs Ben (lovingly) that he's being a twit, a former jockey is haunted by his last race and Cale writes a tear-jerker of a class essay that her father is cornered into reading at Parents' Night.
Russell, who looks younger with each movie, holds his own against the formidable force that is Dakota Fanning. The 11-year-old star, whose white-blond hair and tiny frame conspire in some lights to make her look about 93, displays a nice reserve as Calea welcome break from her ear-shattering turn in "War of the Worlds." Luis Guzman and Freddy Rodriguez are great, if underutilized, as trainers who follow Ben on his Sonador-inspired adventure.
Back at the barn, as luck would have it, Sonador is a quick healer, and soon she's (literally) champing at the bit to run again. She's put through her paces, and while she doesn't break any records, she looks like a good closer. This horse might just be able to race. Coincidentally, the Cranes are flat broke, and why, look, the Breeders' Cup, with its plentiful purse, is coming up in just a few months!
You can see where this is going. And yet somehow the film manages to be enormously satisfying. Sure, you hate yourself for delighting in the inevitable, but it's the bargain we all strike when it comes to dealing with our various guilty pleasures: Enjoy it now, and face the self-loathing when you get home.
Directed by John Gatins; written by Gatins; photographed by Fred Murphy; edited by David Rosenbloom; production designed by Brent Thomas; produced by Michael Tollin and Brian Robbins. A Dreamworks Pictures presentation; opens Friday. Running time: 1:45. MPAA rating: PG (for brief mild language).
Cale Crane - Dakota Fanning
Ben Crane - Kurt Russell
Lilly Crane - Elisabeth Shue
Pop Crane - Kris Kristofferson
Palmer - David Morse
Balon - Luis Guzman
Manolin - Freddy Rodriguez
Prince Sadir - Oded FehrCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times