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Alex Stroup, editor


New Disney horse movie is for the dogs

Friday, March 5, 2004
by Alex Stroup, editor

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.

©Buena 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.

Or something 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.

Of 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 itself.

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 terribly fake.

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?

The director 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.

©Buena 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.

In 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.

Thoughts, questions, or comments? Contact Alex here.


Hidalgo is a Touchstone Pictures release

Wide theatrical release: Friday, March 5, 2004

Directed by Joe Johnston

Screenplay by John Fusco

Starring: Viggo Morsensen, Omar Sharif, Louise Lombard, Zuleikha Robinson

Rated PG-13 for adventure violence and some mild innuendo

Running 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.


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