horse movie is for the dogs
Friday, March 5, 2004
by Alex Stroup,
Strangely, I have had the experience of watching two Disney movies
recently that involves Arabic horse racing. If you want to know how this review
is going to go, just know this: I recommend you go see The Young Black Stallion
(review) instead; it has the benefit of being more
than an hour shorter.
Vista Pictures Distribution.
Also strangely, on the surface this would appear
to be the second Disney movie in a month about a historical sporting event. Last
month's Miracle (review) told the true story
of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. This month we get the story of Frank Hopkins,
who with his trusty horse Hildalgo, was a legendary distance racer and once went
to Arabia where he won a centuries old 3,000-mile-long horse race.
like that. There really was a man named Frank Hopkins. He probably had some familiarity
with horses. Beyond that it appears he was quite the purveyor of tall tales, and
despite protestations from screenwriter John Fusco (Young Guns, Babe,
Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron) that seems to be about as close as this
movie comes to telling a true story. The Long Rider's Guild (Web
site) has put together a pretty convincing case that there was never a 3,000-mile
pan-Arabia horse race; that Hopkins was likely never part of the Buffalo Bill's
Wild West Show; that Hopkins probably wasn't even born where he claimed.
course, none of that necessarily matters. If the movie is good enough, historical
inaccuracy is easily ignored. Unfortunately, Hildalgo wasn't a good enough
movie for that; the only redeeming thing was that it made me interested in learning
more about a person that, it turns out, didn't really exist. The fact that Disney
is marketing this as a true story is insult added to injury, not injury
The primary problem here is that director Joe Johnston (who has
a mixed-bag resume including both October Sky and Jurassic Park III)
never quite commits to what kind of movie he is making. There isn't quite enough
action, quite enough humor, quite enough romance, or quite enough historical drama
to make any of these elements work.
The map-wandering isn't constrained
to the stylistic; visually it is all over the place as well. Until I looked him
up, I wondered if Johnston was a first-time director. The entire movie seems to
be a demo reel for someone's Camera Tricks 101 class in film school. All of a
sudden you get a little Ridley Scott shaky-cam here, some bleached-out pathos
there, an action scene with such a deep focus that the entire background looks
Now, this is all a big test for Viggo Mortensen. It is time
to start learning if he is a movie star or if Aragorn is the star. Most of the
Lord of the Rings actors are going to go through this. Can they continue
their careers, or are they stuck, like Leonard Nimoy, with a typecast career and
only the hope of fan conventions to provide retirement income?
is so busy mucking things up, so it muddies the water a bit, but Mortensen does
not present himself as a leading man. Throughout the movie he is flat, taking
everything that comes with a laziness that suggests not a character at ease with
the universe, but an actor thinking about other things, like perhaps who should
design his Academy Awards tuxedo.
Fortunately for Mortensen, his lackadaisical
performance is nearly masked by the amazingly weak surrounding cast. Most of the
other characters are thoroughly indistinguishable and many die anonymous deaths.
Near the end, when one character dies after a heroic act, I was hard pressed to
remember who he was.
There are really only four other characters that stand
out. Louise Lombard plays Lady Davenport, a woman of high British society with
an interest in Arabian horses. While mostly unremarkable, I did wonder why she
was apparently not allowed to move her jaw when talking. J.K. Simmons (Law
& Order, Spider-Man) makes a brief appearance as Buffalo Bill Cody
but also has a speech problem. He sounds like he swallowed a golf ball. Maybe
that's historically accurate, but it was distracting.
The other two notables
are more problematic. Harsh Nayyar plays a goatherd being punished for stealing
milk. Either he loses his arm, or he works as Hopkins assistant. Apparently half
insane, he is the film's comic relief (for Hopkins is certainly never going to
crack a smile), but is so out of place you just want him shooed off screen as
quickly as possible.
Vista Pictures Distribution.
Finally, there is Omar Sharif. Watching his
performance as Sheikh Riyadh, I momentarily wondered how long it would be before
the Council on American-Islamic Relations filed a protest over the hiring of this
poser to play an Arab. Then I remembered it was Sharif and he actually is an Arab.
Then I was simply embarrassed for Sharif.
Sheikh Riyadh is such a caricature,
somehow attempting to show that the oppression and shaming of women is all right
if you let them ride a horse when no one is looking. I don't really know where
to start with it; it is just such a weird mish-mash of a character. I wouldn't
be surprised if it is an accurate portrayal of a character described by Hopkins
in one of his fictitious stories, but if the director and screenwriter had just
let Sharif play a real person it would have gone far toward redeeming the film.
the end, though, there is simply nothing to help it. The story is obvious, the
twists are clichéd, the filming is hackneyed, the actors are bored, and
the love story goes nowhere. Unless you absolutely love horses or anonymous Arab
villains, there is no reason to even consider this movie.
And I didn't even
get into the attempts to make the horse act. At one point I almost thought it
was going to do a Kangaroo Jack and start talking.
questions, or comments? Contact Alex here.
is a Touchstone Pictures release
release: Friday, March 5, 2004
Directed by Joe Johnston
by John Fusco
Starring: Viggo Morsensen, Omar Sharif,
Louise Lombard, Zuleikha Robinson
Rated PG-13 for
adventure violence and some mild innuendo
time: 136 minutes
Alex's Rating: 3 out of 10
Alex Stroup is a degreed librarian with an undergraduate degree in history. An avid reader, movie buff, and devoted information junkie, Alex currently lives and works in the Northern California Bay Area. Alex is also the CEO of MousePlanet.
Click here to contact Alex.