Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story supports the theory that animals provide us both a means to connect with one another and inspiration for us to succeed against impossible odds. The horse in this case is Sonador, and the broken family are the Cranes, who own a Kentucky horse farm devoid of horses. Dakota Fanning gives father Kurt Russell her best puppy-dog eyes, and Sonador is immediately ensconced at the Crane homestead for rehabilitation and a second chance at racing, mending the Cranes’ hearts while they mend her leg. You’ve seen it before, but it’s serious, and the well-seasoned Russell supplies gravitas. With Kris Kristofferson.
In 1938, an undersized thoroughbred snagged the attention of the entire country with his dominating speed, and in 2001, an unknown author with chronic fatigue syndrome made the bestseller list with her book about this rather ungainly horse. The ugly duckling syndrome plays out as well for one-eyed jockey Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), and the whole package is pumped with inspirational juice by screenwriter/director Gary Ross. The period track milieu of Seabiscuit is authentic and omnipresent, and the story still hums.
Probably the greatest horse-love film that will ever be made, Carroll Ballard’s entrancing take on the Walter Farley children’s book is rich in atmosphere, light on unnecessary chitchat (the grand middle passage, set on a desert island populated only by a boy and a wild horse, is essentially dialogue free), and visually so beautiful it can stop your brain from working. From the shipboard opening (with an enigmatic poker game and a traumatic storm) to the stranded courting of horse by kid (Kelly Reno is fabulous) and beyond, The Black Stallion is a deeply mysterious film—clear, but hinting at deeper ravishments. As a result, it may also be one of the best evocations of the ecstatic currents flowing through childhood.
A hallmark family film that is less about a girl’s relationship to her horse than it is about her relationship to her family, her determination, and her adolescence. National Velvet is based on a bestselling Enid Bagnold novel, and features 1940s Technicolor, but none of that is as bewitching as a twelve-year-old Elizabeth Taylor, whose earnest zest for competition lights her from the inside. Well-turned-out performances all around, and with more subtle, genuine moments than fluff, thanks to the good humor of the script and the Oscar-winning performance of Anne Revere as the wise mother.
The Marx Brothers do the horse track—which is to say that A Day at the Races has very little to do with racing at all. Unfortunately, it’s one of the brotherhood’s later films, for MGM, which despite hearty servings of Marxian wackiness are overrun with romantic subplots and unfunny musical numbers. Still, if you’re having juleps, this is your best bet.