Like Seabiscuit, Hidalgo is based on a true story about a plucky horse and a rider in need of a second chance. Unlike Seabiscuit, which told its cheesy story with confidence and conviction, Hidalgo can't decide what it wants to be, a semi-serious drama or a thrill-a-minute swashbuckler. It fails on both counts. It's far too silly to be taken seriously as a drama and too long and too grim in places to work as light-hearted adventure. On the plus side, an $80 million dollar budget has made this a very handsome-looking film and there are long stretches where it works pretty well. Turn off your critical faculties and you should get some enjoyment out of it. Like the recent remakes of The Four Feathers and The Count Of Monte Cristo, it's a film made for bank holiday afternoon television.
Frank Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen) is a long-distance horse racer who has won many a trophy on his wild mustang Hidalgo. He also earns a few bucks as a dispatch rider for the US cavalry. When he unwittingly delivers the orders that lead to the 1890 massacre of 150 Sioux Indians at Wounded Knee Creek, Frank, who is part Indian himself, is devastated and ends up a miserable drunk, reduced to performing in Buffalo Bill's travelling circus. If this all sounds very familiar, you probably saw The Last Samurai, in which Tom Cruise played more or less the same character. That's merely a coincidence, since both films were made simultaneously, yet it's a distracting one, and The Last Samurai handled the subject matter more tastefully. A real historical atrocity doesn't belong in a Disney adventure.
After this glum beginning, the movie comes to life when Frank and Hidalgo are invited to Arabia by Sheikh Riyadh (Omar Sharif) to take part in the Ocean of Fire, a 3000-mile endurance race across the deserts of the Middle East. Its participants face sandstorms, brigands, quicksand and swarms of locusts as well as the merciless heat of the sun. Few survive. While all this is presented in shallow, high-gloss Hollywood style, it's still compelling stuff. You would think such a race would provide enough drama for any film but apparently not for the makers of this one. Half-way through, the plot veers off on a tangent into a Thief Of Baghdad-style adventure, involving swordfights, chases, swarthy villains and damsels in distress. This is sort of fun on its own level, even if Joe Johnston lacks Steven Spielberg's panache, however any credibility Hidalgo had built up is now out the window, down the road and disappearing over the horizon. The movie's attempt to get back into realistic mode when the race recommences is ludicrous. It's as if Seabiscuit and his jockey took time out between races to take on Al Capone.
Also working against the film is Viggo Mortensen's low-key performance. He's trying to play the character seriously and the writing isn't there to back him up. A little of Aragorn's presence and charm might have at least have given us a hero to root for. To be fair to him, most of the cast are defeated by the script. Only Omar Sharif manages to overcome it and retain some dignity, even while speaking dialogue like, "You are an unbeliever, you cannot understand our ways." Hidalgo himself is a victim of the same sloppy writing. We're told he's a fiery steed who's never been fully tamed but from what we see of him onscreen, he's just another faithful equine sidekick like Silver or Trigger. He even shares their supernatural intelligence. When Frank is thinking of quitting before the second stage of the race, he looks up and there's Hidalgo standing on the starting line, staring back at him meaningfully, as if to say "Get your arse over here, you miserable git. I've got a grand on this".