From start to finish, Dreamer follows its sports-movie and family-film conventions right down the safe, obvious track. Any movie that begins with an adorable little girl wistfully wishing for a horse is certainly going to produce a very special horse before too long, and when that horse enters a prestigious race, it's a fair bet that she isn't going to drag in around third place. Screenwriter and first-time director John Gatins carved out a sports-movie niche with his previous scripts (Coach Carter, Hard Ball, Summer Catch), and he's comfortable with the genre's standard star-eyed dreamers and last-minute uplifts. There are no surprises in Dreamer—except that for all its visible and unselfconscious schmaltz, it's actually pretty enjoyable.
Kurt Russell stars as a former racehorse-trainer who lost his nerve; now he and his stunningly pretty family (Elizabeth Shue as his mostly decorative wife and Man On Fire tot Dakota Fanning as his precocious, polite daughter) live on what's described as Lexington, Kentucky's only horse-free horse farm. But Russell still sells his skills to gloweringly evil David Morse, at least until Morse races a filly called Sonador (Spanish for "dreamer") against Russell's advice, and she breaks her leg. Rather than letting Morse put Sonador down in front of Fanning, Russell takes her home and tries to heal her, with the help of his grouchy old father Kris Kristofferson. In the process, doubtless to everyone's shock, they all heal the rifts that have grown between them.
Dreamer has an amusing habit of simultaneously introducing and solving such rifts, mostly via clunky conversation: When Russell and Kristofferson first face off, they take a moment to explain that they're estranged, even as their conversation mostly solves the problem. Shue similarly chides Russell for ignoring Fanning, even as he's enjoying their new closeness. If everyone wasn't so busy pointing out the family strife, it wouldn't be apparent. Other problems are introduced just so everyone can sigh happily when they're solved, as when Russell's favorite jockey laboriously explains the trauma that will prevent him from ever racing again. Guess who hops triumphantly into the saddle shortly thereafter?
Most of Dreamer unfolds this way. No problem endures for long, and barriers only exist to be easily vaulted. Gatins directs like he's never even heard of irony—or just has no intention of letting it enter his sun-dappled, beautifully filmed world. And his optimism is contagious enough to infect his entire gung-ho cast: Russell in particular delivers a charming aw-shucks performance that would do any country politician proud. Dreamer's heavy blanket of good cheer and good intentions weighs it down, but also insulates it from ugly realities, and while it's probably best suited for 12-year-old girls who love horses, it's a slickly capable feel-good movie that rarely even acknowledges the possibility of feeling bad.