Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story Review
I suspect that if you have a girl who becomes interested in horses much earlier than she does in boys, then her teenage years may not be quite so traumatic as they could otherwise be. One part of that innocent attraction to pony-riding must remain, even to the wondering if boys are really worth bothering with when there's horses to be trained and ridden. I've even noticed this morning, whilst being entertained by the ragtag mix of programming on Five's Shake!, that MGA Entertainment's Lil Bratz, part of the enormously successful Bratz range of toys for girls, now have their own ponies. Oddly enough, these ponies may well look as sexually precocious as do Sasha, Yasmin, Jade and Cloe but eight-to-ten year old girls will doubtless take to them with abandon.
Dreamer is a film made specifically for that age of girl and carries with it the romance of the underdog, of the drama of a family who've drifted apart but who, through their pursuit of a dream, find themselves coming back together and of a young girl given the responsibility or bringing an injured horse back to health and succeeding in it, even against all the odds. It stars Kurt Russell as Ben Crane, a horse trainer employed by breeder Palmer (David Morse) but who, unlike his boss, has a conscience. As the film opens, Palmer is ordering Crane to prepare Sonador, a future champion, for a race but Crane tells him that Sonador has told him that she's not ready. As the race begins, Sonador starts well but on the final straight, Crane's fears as realised when Sonador falls and breaks a leg. Palmer orders that she be put down and that Crane and his, as Palmer puts it, Mexicans find themselves another job. Suggesting a severance package of $6000 and the horse, Ben, Balon (Luis Guzman) and Manolin (Freddy Rodriguez) load Sonador into their trailer and drive through the night to Ben's farm, which he's been selling off piece-by-piece to stay afloat, where his daughter, Cale (Dakota Fanning) is overjoyed to be getting her own horse but which Ben knows may only be worth keeping so long as he can get her to breed.
His father, Pop Crane (Kris Kristofferson), who Ben is estranged from, tells his son to put her down but Ben and Cale say no, that they're going to make Sonador better and over the weeks that follow, she does show signs of improvement, helped, no doubt, by the ice lollies fed to her each night by Cale. But in their way are various obstacles - he gets a good deal on the use of a breeding stallion but it still remains out of reach whilst he remains worried about racing Sonador on the track - and soon Ben loses heart, wondering to himself and to his wife, Lilly (Elisabeth Shue), if Sonador was worth putting his hopes in. But then Cale writes a story in her school Creative Writing class about a stupid king who had to learn from his horse that his kingdom was a better place than he could ever have imagined and sensing that she knows better than him, Ben signs over Sonador to Cale, who comes up with the idea of racing in the elite Breeder's Cup...
To give Dreamer its full title, it is indeed inspired by a true story, that of Mariah's Storm, a filly who broke a leg during a race in 1993 but which returned a year later to win the Arlington Heights Oaks. But this is no Seabiscuit - it's not pitched at the same audience - but there's enough in here to appeal both to pre-teen girls and to their parents, both of whom have separate stories threaded through the film to attract their eye.
For the girls is the story of young Cale Crane, well played by Dakota Fanning, who's much better here than she was in, say, Steven Spielberg's War Of The Worlds. She plays Cale with a mix of innocence and sass - the reason that Ben Crane can't put Sonador down is because of Cale being with him and he can't bear to imagine her seeing that but yet he's happy to put her before the vetting board of the Breeder's Cup knowing that she's confident enough to win them over. Of course, much of this confidence comes from her handling of Sonador, which gets better as the film progresses. Early in the film, Sonador is portrayed as this huge animal who bears stares down at Cale in the few scenes they have together, whilst, following a popsicle or two, she's shown carrying Cale's backpack as they stroll across a field together.
Cale's personal growth isn't necessarily just a feelgood subplot within the film, more one that shows a young girl appreciating and delivering on the faith that her father and mother have in her. She may well have a naivety about the world but this stands her in good stead as she opens doors that would be closed to others older and with a more cynical view of life than her. Fanning is in a great deal of films at the moment but she's good here, with her slight awkwardness making her Cale Crane believable and likeable.
As for parents, there's a good story of familial estrangement in here, with Kris Kristofferson's Pop Crane being welcomed back into the family fold as Sonador works more magic than just that on the track. The suggestion is that Ben's farm was also once Pop's but that the two had a disagreement which left the elder Crane moving out of the farmhouse and into a trailer, or caravan, on this son's land but at such an emotional distance that the two of them stopped talking some years before. Their first conversations in Dreamer are practical ones regarding Sonador's health and they're suspicious of one another but later in the film, the two actually smile when they're together, which leads to one reminiscing about the other. When Ben Crane tells his father that, seeing his daughter, he's never known anyone so happy around a horse, Pop Crane tells him that he has, leaving it open but in such a way that it's perfectly clear to the audience who Pop is referring two.
Had this been rushed, Dreamer wouldn't have be half as effective as it is but writer/director John Gatins doesn't rush his film. It would doubtless have attracted a bigger audience had he cut it down from its 106-minute running time but it wouldn't have had the same impact. Ben's reading of Cale's story may well be a hackneyed plot device to show that she knows better than him but Gatins takes his time, lets sentences linger in the air for a few seconds longer than would another director and makes the scene work. Similarly, when Sonador rides in the Breeder's Cup, he puts as much focus on the Crane family as on the race, showing that focus of the story isn't solely on where the horse finishes in the race but in how close the Crane family have become as they nurse Sonador back to racing fitness. Between the two races that bookend the film, Gatins fills the picture with lots of beautifully sunlit views of lush farmland, over which Cale Crane and Sonador stroll, leaving it the kind of film that will have eight-year-old girls falling in love with it, much as their mothers once did with Black Beauty and National Velvet. And, I suspect, it will be as well-loved as both of those films even as those girls grow older.
Oddly for a film that's primarily designed to appeal to pre-teen girls, its 2.40 aspect ratio is narrow and does ask to be viewed on a big screen. And it's dark, often very dark, particularly early on in the film when Ben Crane takes Sonador home in the middle of a thunderstorm and not only are the Ben and Pop Crane's faces obscured by the darkness but the conversation between them is almost drowned out by the sound effects. Things pick up, though, soon after that and as the Crane family find that fortune is swinging their way, the picture reflects their newfound happiness with the sun shining over their farm.
The actual transfer is often very good indeed with the picture looking sharp, colourful and with an impressive amount of detail. There is also a natural look to it that's suits the material, which is something that the audio track has in common with the picture. Any use of the surround channels is rare but most certainly there, most noticeable in ambient effects and in the horse races that open and close the film. The effect is one that's very understated but which complements the film, showing that a great deal of care has been taken over a film that is aimed primarily at young girls.
Commentary: Dreamer is John Gatins's first film and it shows in his enthusiasm throughout this commentary. Although Gatins is on his own, that doesn't prevent him from talking almost constantly throughout the film, going into every detail of the production, including extras, where certain scenes were shot, where his mistakes are evident, including Kris Kristofferson loitering outside a window having not been told what to do by Gatins once he'd left the Crane kitchen and where visual effects were used. There is so much information here that it's a commentary best listened to over two or three sittings just so not to feel overwhelmed by it.
Who is Mariah's Storm (5m06s): As John Gatins explains here, when he began talking about the story that he was writing, he was told that it was one with a true-life precedent, that of the filly Mariah's Storm, who was a promising racehorse before breaking a leg but who made a remarkable comeback. Gatins narrates this short feature, which is also bookended with a couple of interviews with him.
On The Set: Working With Thoroughbreds (11m05s): Never work with child...you know the rest but John Gatins used both in his telling of the story of Sonador. Sensing that Working With Children might be a little unsavoury sounding, this feature concentrates on the racehorses that were used in the film, offering interviews with director John Gatins, Lead Horse Wrangler Rusty Hendrickson and Horse Trainer Rex Paterson. In this feature, they talk about the use of several horses to portray Sonador, two of which were racehorses whilst the others were better for reacting to the human cast and how a horse race can be planned down to what order the race finishes in.
Taking Care of Horses (5m36s): And this is probably the feature that will most attract young girls as Dakota Fanning introduces segments on how best to look after and groom a horse. Fanning isn't actually present with the horse - it's an unnamed group of teenage girls instead - but there's plenty in this short feature for viewers to learn about.
Meet the Dreamer Dream Cast (17m00s): ...and hear them praise one another for the entire length of the feature. If you can bear such a thing, this isn't bad but there's very little detail in their comments and little that you'll learn other than how impressed the cast were with young actress Dakota Fanning and first-time director John Gatins.
Deleted Scenes: There are only two such scenes here - Chief's Crown (2m33s) and Ben Asks For His Old Job Back (3m37s), the second of which describes exactly what happens whilst the other explains the falling out between Ben and Pop Crane and why they're so desperate to find a winning racehorse.
Finally, there's a music video - Dreamer (3m37s) by Bethany Dillon - an Interview with John Gatins (8m56s) from a racing television show, where he forecasts horses 1, 4 and 5 finishing in that order and, whaddaya know, they do. This section finishes with adverts for Shrek 2, Madagascar, A Shark Tale, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Just Like Heaven, Nanny McPhee and The Adventures of Brer Rabbit.
Whilst not a film for very young children - those aged six or less will be a touch confused by some of it - it's a good, old-fashioned family film, one that everyone can sit down to without fear of being offended. Gatins has even managed to blend several stories together without really compromising any of them - his family drama is nicely heart-warming, his villain isn't a heartless one, more one motivated simply by money, whilst the relationship between Cale and Sonador is one that all parents would like their children to have with their pet.
The DVD on which it comes is a decent one, which contains a good transfer and a worthy selection of extras. Whilst not having a great push of publicity behind it yet, this is the kind of film that stands up to repeated viewings. Particularly if you have the right kind of audience living in your home and who are prepared to put down their Bratz dolls for the story of Cale Crane and Sonador.