A movie supposedly based on a true story and definitely custom-made for horse lovers Hidalgo ambles along at a leisurely pace taking a full two hours and 20 minutes to tell the story of a man Frank T. Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen); his horse Hidalgo (T.J.); and their attempt to win the famed 3000-mile "Ocean of Fire" endurance race across the Arabian Desert in the 1890s. (We use the phrase "supposedly" true because although the filmmakers claim the story is meticulously researched certain Arab groups claim no such race ever existed. Certainly Hopkins himself lived but the rest is up for debate. Ah Hollywood can we not have one film this season that doesn't stir up controversy with someone?) At any rate Hopkins' reasons for entering the alleged race are many but mainly he's running from himself. The son of a Native American woman and a white man he's never been able to come to terms with his mixed heritage. Since the Ocean of Fire race has always been exclusively open only to a) men b) Arabs and c) purebred Arabian horses Hopkins' efforts to prove himself--and his mustang--form the movie's underlying theme which is typical Disney fare: It's not about who you are or where you came from; it's all about heart.
With his standout turn as Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy Mortensen achieved heartthrob status but the big question everyone's asking about Hidalgo is whether or not he can carry a movie on his own. The answer is a resounding yes. When there's action to be had Mortensen looks like a real pro. He's got the cowboy drawl down pat; shoots a Colt .45 with confidence; delivers sharp one-liners like a kinder gentler Clint Eastwood; and has a great seat on a horse. Even when the movie gets a little slow--and it does a 3000-mile desert race will do that to a movie--Mortensen's onscreen appeal saves the day. There is of course a supporting cast of characters who either help our hero in his quest: Sheikh Riyadh (Omar Sharif) who challenges Hopkins to enter the race but ultimately becomes his friend and the Sheikh's daughter Jazira (Zuleikha Robinson) a rider herself but prohibited from entering because she's a woman. Obstacles of course also abound: There's Lady Anne Davenport (Louise Lombard) who needs her mare to win the race so she can breed her to the Sheikh's Arabian stud El Attal the purest stud of the purest bloodline in the world. She wouldn't mind if Hopkins dropped out of the race--or into her bed.
There's no question that director Joe Johnston's (Jurassic Park III) production of Hidalgo was a massive undertaking: Eight hundred horses plus camels vultures falcons rabbits goats dogs donkeys leopards and buffalo are featured in the film along with a re-creation of a Wild West show the massacre at Wounded Knee a locust swarm and a desert sandstorm. The locations spanned the globe from the Arabian Desert (shot in Morocco) to the sprawling ranchlands of the American West to the New York City docks. All in all it's a well put together visual display and like its star it feels authentic. The dialogue from scribe John Fusco (Young Guns I and II Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron) is engaging if occasionally a little sappy; the relationships (especially between Hopkins and Hidalgo) are meaningful and well presented; and the action scenes are fast-paced and exciting. Trouble is interspersed are somewhat long expanses of time during which too little actually happens which makes the film seem longer than it needed to be.