Modestly engaging but mostly unexceptional, family-friendly “Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story” likely will sprint through theatrical tracks before grazing in greener pastures as a homevid product. Pic boasts appealing performances by ever-reliable Kurt Russell as a Kentucky horse trainer and hot property Dakota Fanning as his adoring daughter. But the derivative plot about the rehabilitation of an injured thoroughbred will surprise only those in the youngest level of the target demographic.
Scripter John Gatins (“Coach Carter”) sticks to a well-trod path in his debut effort as feature helmer. Very loosely based on real-life exploits of Mariah’s Storm, a promising filly who triumphed over a near-crippling injury in the early 1990s, the largely fictionalized scenario misses few opportunities to yank at heartstrings while following an equine survivor on the comeback trail.
In the wake of financial setbacks at his family’s horse farm, vet trainer Ben Crane (Russell) works for wealthy stable owner Palmer (David Morse, sneering haughtily). But when Palmer’s up-and-coming filly named Sonador (which translates, of course, as “Dreamer”) breaks a leg during a high stakes race, Crane refuses to follow orders and put the animal down. He’s especially reluctant to shoot the injured filly in front of his young daughter, Cale (Fanning), who just happens to be visiting the track on the day of the accident.
After an angry clash with Palmer, Crane quits — and takes the injured Sonador as part of his severance pay. It’s a bold move for a man teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, and Crane’s estranged father (Kris Kristofferson), another horse expert, is only too quick to deride his son’s decision. But with a little help from stablehands Balon (Luis Guzman) and Manolin (Freddy Rodriguez), and a lot of enthusiastic attentiveness from Cale, Crane manages to heal the horse in time for an against-all-odds run in the Breeders Cup.
Russell and Fanning develop a father-daughter relationship both believable and compelling. Indeed, some of their scenes together — including a playful conversation about Cale’s feeding Popsicles to the mending filly — have the feel of savvy improvisation. Kristofferson provides a few moments of weathered wisdom laced with grizzled crankiness. Unfortunately, other key cast members are unable to do more than go through the motions in thinly written roles.
Pic is at once contrived and simplistic while cantering toward finish line. Parallels between the horse’s physical recovery and the family’s emotional reunion are dutifully underscored, often to satisfying dramatic effect. The most distinctive plot wrinkle involves the fortuitous involvement of a visiting Arab prince (Oded Fehr) who has personal reasons to support Sonador’s Breeders Cup bid.
Fred Murphy merits mention for his attractive lensing of Louisiana and Kentucky locations.