"Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story," a horse-race drama starring Dakota Fanning, knows the Rules of Cute and Fuzzy Horse Movies, firmly enshrined in 1944's "National Velvet," with opal-eyed horse princess Elizabeth Taylor:

* Save the bad surprises for temporary setbacks along the way, not the final lap.

* Make the horse a, well, underdog, so that every furlong of the big race feels like a stand-up-and-cheer moment.

* Pump up the family's adorability factor and make sure their victory is about more than just winning.

Easy enough. "Dreamer," in which young Cale Crane (Fanning) nurses a wounded horse back to racing shape, harnesses these commandments and rides them all the way to the Breeders' Cup. But will her formerly hobbled horse win, despite the terrible odds, with everything on the line, when Cale has staked all her hopes and dreams into that special horse (named Dreamer)?

Writer-director John Gatins and his actors also fulfill the engaging-family requirement. Fanning, an extraordinary performer, makes a wonderfully sweet and unbratty Cale. Kurt Russell, a veteran of other family-oriented films, matches her charm as her good-natured father; and as Pop, the grandpa whose passion for horses has been handed down three generations, Kris Kristofferson is a pleasurably gruff-voiced presence. This is a family to root for, as much as the horse.

-- Desson Thomson