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Her Little Pony 

A word to parents: After this film leaves theaters and rushes like a galloping steed to the DVD rental walls, be sure, when you hurriedly reach for a copy for your undiscerning child, that you don't accidentally grab Bernardo Bertolucci's Dreamers. That one is chock-full of sexual situations and full frontal nudity. At least then you'd be surprised.

This is a movie that holds no surprises. Jumping into the main plotline at about the five-minute mark, first-time director John Gatins (who previously wrote the forgettable Coach Carter) goes the Seabiscuit Lite route. There's a terrible accident suffered by the title character, a beautiful filly named Sonador (Spanish for "dreamer"). And from there, the story traces the horse's recovery, from being able to stand, to suddenly breaking into a full-out run, to ... well, there's this big race at the end.

But before the film gets anywhere near that race, the script introduces the film's central family -- failed horse rancher Ben (Kurt Russell), his bored but peppy wife Lily (Elisabeth Shue), their precocious daughter Cale (Dakota Fanning) and Ben's father Pop (Kris Kristofferson), who once owned the horse ranch that now has no horses. We learn that there's not much money around, that Ben works as I guess what you would call a "horse listener" for a real jerk (David Morse), and that no one, except little Cale, is very happy.

Then the cliches start pouring forth: Ben and Pop haven't seen eye-to-eye for a long time; Cale only wants to hang out with her dad as he works with the jerk's race horses; Manny, one of the trainers, used to ride in races but got spooked by a bad fall and has given up racing; lots of money is needed by our protagonist family.

There are many more, but before any of them can register, the oh-so-obvious questions start forming: Will the broken leg on Ben's horse ever heal? Will she ever be able to run again? Will Manny ever ride again? Will Mom and Dad, who hardly even look at each other when they speak, ever rekindle their romance? Will Pop and Ben ever again treat each other like father and son? Will the family get their hands on the big heaps of money needed for race entry fees?

This is the kind of well-intentioned, big-hearted film that used to be made by Disney. But it just doesn't have the Disney stamp of quality on it. Most of the acting is pretty good, and the photography is excellent, but there's just not much to get caught up in. It's a simple puzzle of a picture into which all of the pieces easily fit. And it's all just so darn earnest!

Dakota Fanning is one of the actors in the film who does not fare very well, but it's not really her fault. She's asked to play a little girl who wants only to be around her dad, when he's around horses. When that happens, she's happy. But Cale is also supposed to be seriously wise beyond her years. The result is a character who's very difficult to believe. I doubt if any young actor could pull off this role.

If that isn't enough trouble, a ridiculous plot shift has her becoming majority owner of the horse. And before you can whinny, she's transformed into a cute little businesswoman, displaying more knowledge of horses than either her father or her grandfather. And just as suddenly, she's drinking strong black coffee -- her dad actually brings a cup to her in the bedroom as he's waking her up one morning -- and is speaking in horse owner slang.

One other problem with Fanning -- and this is her fault as well as the director's -- is that she often talks too fast, and it's very hard to understand what's she's saying.

On the positive side, there are a few things to be learned from watching this film: how to say "dreamer" in Spanish, what the word "claim" means in horse-racing circles, and the purpose of a "teaser pony" during breeding. Good luck explaining that one to your kids.

All of that will probably be forgotten by the time of the big race, in this case the Breeders' Cup. Too bad that what will be remembered from the final reel is that it's filled with unnecessary "drama," and the old standby clich & eacute; of a rider's foot coming out of the stirrup in the heat of the race -- again, to no real purpose.

The biggest question of all is one that's not satisfactorily answered: Who is more spirited -- the big-eyed horse or the big-eyed little girl?

Dreamer; Rated: PG; Written and directed by John Gatins; Starring Kurt Russell, Elizabeth Shue, Dakota Fanning, Kris Kristofferson

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