It’s been pointed out by better people than me that family movies appear to be the wrong way around this spring and summer. That the really good ones – and my eyes are firmly planted on Netflix’s The Mitchells vs The Machines here – are being sent to home streaming platforms, while the ones that ordinarily would have struggled in cinemas are getting the big screen space. It’ll be interesting to see if that oddity course corrects.
One live-action family feature that’s been patiently waiting for its chance though is Dream Horse, which tells the real-life tale of a woman working behind a bar in Wales, who convinces the locals to chip in towards a race horse. It’s a film that premiered at the start of 2020, and was set for a UK release more than a year ago. Now it’s here, there’s something quite timeless and charming about it. Thankfully, it’s a family movie that deserves its shot.
Not that there’s anything particularly radical about how it’s all set up. Most of us will have seen this kind of story told before plenty of times, and screenwriter Neil McKay has little interest in shaking up a winning formula. Thus, we’re introduced to Jan Vokes, played by Toni Collette, and her husband Brian (played by Owen Teale, last seen trying to put a gloss on things in Line Of Duty). Their life has flattened, and Jan – following an encounter with Damian Lewis’s Howard at the local club – decides to take the plunge on an equine adventure.
It does hold together, it does work and it does charm
Ostensibly, it’s then Howard and Jan who step to the fore of the story, each with different challenges at home to face. But it’s to the enormous credit of the film that not only does it invest in staging its horse races impressively, but it also spends on a sizeable cast. Too often, a smaller film can strain at the edges of its budget by asking us to believe that a village gathering is four people and a teapot. Here, there’s no shortage of hustle, bustle and human beings, and I was surprised just what a difference it made.
Likewise, the horse sequences are well shot and cut, and while this side of the film leans heavily – very heavily – on the familiar sporting underdog story, it’s enjoyable to go along with.
Of the three leads – Collette, Lewis and Teale – only one of them, the latter, is natively Welsh, and there are strong accents, dragons and a bit of national anthem singing to work with. Collette in particular impresses here, her Australian roots very well hidden. And what the film does – under the eye of Euros Lyn (best known for directing TV shows such as Sherlock and Doctor Who) – is come up with a bunch of characters it’s worth spending time with.
There’s the occasional hint that gambling is bad in the movie, and truthfully, it’s a mantra Dream Horse lives by itself. There’s no overt attempt to try something radical, to rip up the rulebook, or to defy expectations. Obstacles put in the way of characters feel relatively simple to circumnavigate, and even the film’s poster gives a sizeable clue as to what’s in store. Yet it does hold together, it does work and it does charm.
Live action family features are hardly in sizeable supply, and that Dream Horse feels a little old fashioned and out of step with current trends is, I feel, to its advantage.
It’s a straightforward tale, told in an unfussy way, with a very welcome bunch of characters. And then, if you stick through the credits, you get an extra sing-song too. It might not be the highest-profile film that’s had to wait a year for its chance on the big screen, but it is worth seeking out and giving support.
Three stars out of five