"Hidalgo" is directed by Joe Johnson, who got his start working on such films as "Star Wars" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark". A director since 1989's "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids", Johnston has managed to create solid high-tech entertainment with a slightly old school feel ("Jumanji") and quality drama ("October Sky"). He was even able to do a satisfying job carrying on the "Jurassic Park" series with the third entry (and soon, the fourth.)
"Hidalgo" is an easy fit for the director, combining old fashioned adventure with modern technology. It is by no means a flawless picture, but the film's somewhat Indiana Jones-esque sense of adventure, performances and fairly tight running time made this a compelling, fun flick. Viggo Mortensen, finally getting the fame he deserves after the "Lord of the Rings" series, plays Frank T. Hopkins, an infamous message dispatcher who was widely known for winning several horse races with his mixed-breed stallion, Hidalgo. Covering up the fact that he is part Indian, he delivers the order to disarm the Indians at Wounded Knee Creek, which turns into a horrific, tragic massacre after the soldiers mistake a dance of prayer for a dance of war and a deaf Indian won't give up his weapon.
Saddened by the part he played in the deaths at Wounded Knee, Hopkins finds himself and his horse as part of a Wild West show going across the country. At one of the show's stops, a messenger from a powerful Sheik (Omar Sharif) demands that Hopkins stop promoting his horse as one of the world's fastest, or prove the legend by participating in the "Ocean of Fire", an utterly brutal 3,000 mile horse race across the desert, with little food or water, against some of the most widely admired Arabian stallions and their skilled riders.
The other riders don't take too well to a Westerner and his mixed-breed horse, encouraging him - by words, then by force - to head back. Despite the odds against them, Hopkins and Hidalgo outsmart and outrun those who have run the race prior, even figuring out ways around the traps or tricks others have set for him. The only moment that stretched things too far is one stretch where Frank must go out of his way to save the girl, bring her back, then try and get back in the race, as the geography of this new task isn't really explained. The story itself has certainly come into question in recent months, as several articles in various magazines have noted that Hopkins simply made up the entire thing. This wouldn't be quite as bad if Disney hadn't been promoting the film recently as "Based on a True Story".
The film's performances are generally quite good. Mortensen makes for a compelling adventurer, adding in sly humor at times as well as conflict about his background. Omar Sharif is also quite good as the Shiek, while Louise Lombard plays a rich British woman who is trying to pull the strings from behind the scenes of the race.
The film's visuals are largely solid, giving the film the required "epic" feel. Some of the special effects aren't terribly special, but there's something rather trippy about a CGI cheetah attack mid-film that, despite iffy visual effects, is well-staged enough to be moderately convincing. The sandstorm promoted heavily in the trailers does look indeed like the one in "The Mummy", as does a locust attack. The sandstorm makes for an exciting sequence. The film, however, could maybe have done without the brief locust bit. Although the film moves along at a nice trot for the majority of the two hour length, mixing in action and character development, a few moments - such as the lengthy rescue sequence of the Shiek's daughter - could have been altered or lost altogether.
Despite the questionable marketing of the film as a "true story", I'm glad to see that Disney's latest ads market the picture more as an action/drama than a "family film", as "Hidalgo" certainly isn't the latter. Despite being a PG-13, the film's action scenes sometimes push that rating, with a surprising amount of violence. This isn't a film for younger kids, despite the fact that the trailers may look appealing to them.
"Hidalgo" is a basically entertaining, old-fashioned Western with a fine lead performance from Mortensen. Cut down the fat however, and this could have been a leaner, more focused and somewhat more enjoyable outing.