"Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story," a horse-race drama starring Dakota Fanning, gets the girls and horses thing. It knows they love those four-legged beauties with such mystical fervor whether the movie's a sleek original or another also-ran.
Strictly speaking, "Dreamer" is definitely the latter. It canters along, content to follow the Rules of Cute and Fuzzy Horse Movies, firmly enshrined in 1944's "National Velvet" with opal-eyed horse princess Elizabeth Taylor:
* Deliver the disappointments as temporary setbacks along the way, not in 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 the victory is about more than just winning.
This movie isn't one of those dramas with a broader mission, such as 2003's "Seabiscuit," in which the racing fate of the horse becomes spiritually linked with Depression-era America. "Dreamer," which also stars Kurt Russell and Kris Kristofferson, is for family audiences seeking easy assurance, moral certitude and, of course, moving scenes of a gorgeous, galloping horse.
The gorgeous one is Sonador -- Spanish for "dreamer" -- and when little Cale Crane (Fanning) first meets her, the mare has a shattered leg and is about to be euthanized. The injury has come about because Palmer (David Morse), her greedy manager, insisted Sonador race despite warnings about her condition from concerned trainer Ben (Russell), who's also Cale's father.
Cale begs Ben, who has just lost his job for yelling at Palmer, to adopt the horse. But Ben and his wife, Lily (Elisabeth Shue), are going through hard times at their horse farm, and it would be economic folly to maintain an expensive racing dud.
Still, unable to refuse his daughter's pleading baby blues, Ben agrees to take on Sonador, whom they now call Sonya. As he rationalizes it later, Sonya is good breeding material. She could bring in money, after all, even if she'll never race again.
Did we mention this is a horse movie?
There's little point rehashing more of the story -- which hinges on whether the family can afford the prohibitive entry fee for the Breeder's Cup, let alone Sonya competing against America's fastest horses -- and its subplot about stable hand Manolin (Freddy Rodriguez) and his dream of being a real winning jockey one day. If you're wondering how this will all end, or if your kid certainly will, this movie's for you.
Writer-director John Gatins (who wrote "Coach Carter," a surprisingly stirring movie despite its familiar sports-formula plot) seems to know that to make a film like "Dreamer" you have to follow the rules of the blues: It ain't what you play, but how you play. Those little moments between the predictable plot points are the grace notes. Although Gatins has created the subsidiary characters with formulaic chords, from Morse's black-hatted schemer to Shue's cheesily supportive mother, he knows enough to let the three talented principal actors play things how they want to.
Kristofferson, who gets shaggier and hoarier every film, exudes effortless heft as Ben's estranged father. (There's something about wizened country singers that gives them immediate credibility onscreen. You can see how Willie Nelson would play the same role with the same effect.) Russell, no stranger to a heartwarming plotline after an early career in Disney films, plays Ben with such easygoing confidence, it's easy to underappreciate his deftness.
Fanning's welcome has become not a little worn, after star turns already this year in "War of the Worlds" and "Hide and Seek." But her air of innocence as Cale -- she seems genuinely shy, disarming and unpretentious -- makes you forget those other roles, and it's as though you're watching a real girl with a dream, not a child actress playing a kid. That credibility is crucial. After all, there are young eyes in the audience looking for someone who speaks for them, someone who understands the lure of horses. And for about an hour and a half, Fanning will be their Liz Taylor.
Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story (105 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for mild profanity.