'Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story" was inspired by a true story, they've gone and spelled it out for you right in the title. This is annoying to newspaper editors and the poor slob whose job it is to change the theater marquee, but a studio has to work with what it has, even if this family crowd-pleaser about a horse, a girl, and her dad didn't include the latter two in reality.
There was a horse, Mariah's Storm, who came back from a crippling 1993 leg injury to win a number of 1995 Kentucky races. This so moved writer-director John Gatins that he has wrapped a fictional saga of intergenerational bonding and triumph around it. ''Dreamer: Vaguely Suggested by an Actual Horse" doesn't cut it, though. Besides, all you really need to care about is whether the movie works.It does, especially if you're young enough to have never seen a horse movie before or old enough to temporarily induce amnesia.
With a gentle charm out of all proportion to its near-total lack of originality, ''Dreamer: IBATS" is -- thank God -- closer to ''Seabiscuit" than to ''Racing Stripes." For that, you can thank the entire cast of able underplayers, most notably Dakota Fanning, who continues to craft her roles with more subtlety than most of the voting membership of the Screen Actors Guild.
She portrays Cale, the 11-year-old daughter of horse trainer Ben Crane (Kurt Russell), not as a Miss Prissypants or a tweener groovy-girl but simply as a kid who misses her workaholic dad and wouldn't mind a horse to share him with. There's precedent: Ben is the son of grizzled horse-whisperer Pop Crane (Kris Kristofferson), who's living in self-righteous exile in the barn after selling off the family land to the racehorse-loving Arab prince (Oded Fehr) next door.
''Dreamer: IBATS" has some soft but interesting insights into how the generations of middle-class horse people in this part of the country have been edged out by foreign money and nouveau riche yuppies.
Ben trains horses for one of the yuppies, a soulless stable owner named Palmer (David Morse, acting with his sunglasses) who urges him to race a 2-year-old filly named Sonador -- Spanish for ''dreamer" -- despite the trainer's misgivings. The horse goes down with a broken leg and is almost put down, but Ben looks into his daughter's eyes and has a change of heart. Buying Sonador from Palmer for the price of his back pay, he hangs her up in traction in his barn. Maybe he'll be able to breed her, he thinks. Cale has other ideas, not all of which involve sneaking cherry popsicles to this equine pinata when no one's looking.
''Dreamer: IBATS" isn't wholly predictable. Cale doesn't become a jockey, for one thing, but opts to rehabilitate Manny (Freddy Rodriguez of ''Six Feet Under"), a scarred former jockey turned stable hand.
Other members of the home team include groom Balon (Luis Guzman) and Cale's strong-and-steady mom (Elisabeth Shue), who slaves in the local diner to make ends meet. Even Pop gets pulled into the longshot drama.
The movie gets a surprising amount of mileage, comic and otherwise, out of Pop and Ben's inability to express their emotions -- there's a reason they spend most of their time with horses -- and Fanning plays Cale as cut from the same dour cloth. When the script calls for her to beam with joy, you don't quite buy it; when storm clouds cross her face and she tucks her feelings out of sight, you're able to read her like a book. The role is beneath Fanning's abilities, but why should she care? She's 11 years old and acting in a horse movie.
There's a nice little empowerment fantasy here, too, when Ben signs Sonador over to Cale as majority owner and basically says, ''We're working for you." This leads to a fine face-off with the racing board of governors and to Cale seeking sponsorship from that nice Arab prince.
We're in Shirley Temple territory by now, but the movie has worked its way there with reasonable honesty. The ending's never in doubt, but you don't mind pretending it is, especially if there's someone small sitting next to you.
Just rent the kid ''National Velvet" when you get home. That movie's proof you don't need a true story to be inspired.