There is something really old-fashioned about Hidalgo in the way it approaches epic scale moviemaking. Movies are really not made like this anymore, with its sense of fun and adventure. This would be the child of a pairing between Raiders of the Lost Ark and Lawrence of Arabia. In fact, look a little closer and one can see other movies cut and pasted into the plot of this one. There's a huge portion of Seabiscuit and a smattering of The Mummy. Hidalgo is pretty derivative, incorporating various standard, familiar plot elements into one bigger story and updating the special effects. Part of the reason it feels so old-fashioned is that everybody knows all the characters and what is going to happen. Another reason it feels old-fashioned is its one-dimensional portrayal of Arabs.

The events in Hidalgo are based on the life of Frank Hopkins. In reality, there was a Hopkins and he did have a horse named Hidalgo, but he also loved to embellish the truth, sometimes to the point where it was all a bunch of lies. It is doubtful whether the events in the film actually happened, but it sure seems like a story that somebody would love telling. Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen, The Return of the King, The Two Towers) is a washed up soldier, living out his days working for Buffalo Bill Cody (hey, just like Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai!). He never had a sense of belonging, since he is half-Indian. After he witnessed the massacre at Wounded Knee, he was never the same. This changes once Sheikh Riyadh (Omar Sharif, Monsieur Ibrahim, The Parole Officer) offers him a chance to participate in a great race across the deserts of Arabia for a huge purse.

The odds are stacked against Hopkins. The race is a grueling 3,000 miles and every year many of the contestants die. The participants must face locusts, sandstorms, quicksand, and desert raiders. Worse, everybody looks down upon Hopkins for being American, and Hidalgo. Hidalgo is a mustang, racing against snooty thoroughbreds who can trace their lineage back generations. The race begins in earnest, and is there ever any doubt who will win by a nose? While writer John Fusco (Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Loch Ness) does imbue a sense of fun into the film, he and director Joe Johnston (Jurassic Park III, October Sky) have no sense of focus. They go off on too many tangents and run things on for much too long. Yes, this film has a grand scale to it, but there's no reason for the running time to have one also.

The most unnecessary segment deals with the kidnapping of the Sheikh's daughter Jazira (Zuleikha Robinson, Slash, Timecode). Everybody drops what they are doing for a quick jaunt and rescue. Jazira is the spunky daughter who refuses to live by the strict guidelines of her culture. She is a modern woman living in an earlier part of the century, and thus, like Hidalgo and Hopkins, doesn't fit in. But she is nothing more than a dull stock character, as is Prince Bin Al Reeh (Said Taghmoui, The Good Thief, Three Kings), Hopkins' chief rival. Of course, Jazira is promised to Al Reeh but has no desire to marry him, and Al Reeh takes an instant disliking to Hopkins. Can anyone guess what kind of relationship the two will have at the end? Johnston portrays all of the Arabs as good or bad, in a very stereotypical way. To his credit, all other characters, from the Indians to the US Army are the same way, but the bulk of the film takes place in Arabia, so the Arab characters stand out. There are the treacherous Arabs, the noble Arabs, and the funny ones.

The worst portrayal is also paradoxically the best. Sharif is wonderful as the Sheikh, but his portrayal can be construed as the most offensive, in terms of being so simplistic. Still, Sharif is able to bring a wry sense of humor to the role. For Mortensen, the spotlight is greater. This is his first role coming off from three years as Aragorn. He's still riding a horse, but is no longer caring for hobbits. As Hopkins he doesn't do that much, except for channel Harrison Ford. The role is physically demanding (he did many of his own stunts) but not mentally so. Yet, even with all its deficiencies, Hidalgo is still a fun, brainless movie. It feels like there is a genuine bond between Hopkins and his horse (Mortensen bought the horse after filming ended), and Fusco and Johnston give Hidalgo so much personality that he outshines some of his human co-stars. It's best to enjoy Hidalgo like a tall tale that some random crazy old man is telling. It's wide shots of dunes, thrilling chases, rescues, and double-crosses make for a rollicking fun time, but it's not much more than superficial.

Haro Rates It: Not Bad.
2 hours, 15 minutes, Rated PG-13 fo adventure violence and some mild innuendo.

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