Playing so blatantly on the little-girl-and-her-pony theme rampant in children’s television and literature, it’s hard to imagine DreamWorks’ new family feature, “Dreamer,” would have anything to offer to audiences above the age of 12. But this is more than some silly, childish story of a girl and her horsey; it’s a reasonably entertaining family drama and though it’s overly sentimental, perhaps even unoriginal, it’s about as compelling as a film of its nature could be for any age.

Set in the lush, sun-soaked fields of Kentucky (with some stunning panoramic scenery to boot), “Dreamer” is the story of a pure-bred horse, Sonador (that’s Dreamer in Spanish), who was once on top of the racing world. But a rash owner and manager override the vehement objections of her trainer, Ben Crane (Kurt Russell, “Miracle”), and send her out on a race even when her leg seems swollen, resulting in a devastating fracture. Saved from euthanasia by the presence of Ben’s young daughter, Cale (Dakota Fanning, “War of the Worlds”), Sonador is nursed back to health by the Cranes, a process that helps them patch up old family wounds and learn the all-important lesson that winning isn’t everything.

The first thing one should know about this film is that it isn’t really a true story. The closest possible basis seems to come from Mariah’s Storm, a horse who once recovered from the same fracture as Sonador to win some races, even the Breeder’s Cup. The fact that the story is mostly fiction takes away from its awe factor considerably, but the film is still worthwhile because it is more than a story of horses and racing. There’s a deeper conflict within the family, which helps to balance the film out and prevents it from becoming too caught up in the racing.

“Dreamer” is very different from other children’s films; instead of featuring childish issues, it portrays very adult conflicts as seen by a child. This difference is significant because it allows more room for some character-level conflicts and family issues that would be avoided in most juvenile films. Because of the complex issues that arise, by the end, it’s debatable who this story of triumph was really about: the horse that lived, the girl who wouldn’t give up, the father who learned nothing is more important than his child or the old man who finally re-discovers his family.

For her part, Fanning is once again stellar and continues to beg the question, how good will this kid be when she grows up? Her knack for portraying characters of her age without the slightest hint of contrivance is as rare as it is astonishing, and she again outshines big-name actors around her (namely Russell). Finally starring in a film she could actually legally watch at American theaters, she has made a seamless transition from heart-pounding thrillers to sentimental family fare.

Certainly there has been a barrage of sports underdog films of late (“Friday Night Lights,” “Seabiscuit,” “Miracle” and “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” to name a few), but “Dreamer” is better than most because of its uncommon depth and expertly paced storytelling. It’s sure-fire entertainment for young viewers and will be surprisingly compelling for older audiences – if they just give it a chance.

 

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

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