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Toon Talk: Hidalgo
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by Kirby Holt (archives)
March 5, 2004
Kirby reviews Disney's latest live-action film, Hidalgo.

Toon Talk
Disney Film & Video Reviews by Kirby C. Holt

The Amazing Race

They don’t make ’em like Hidalgo (both the movie and the titular horse, for that matter) any more. Big, sprawling epic treks of the Lawrence of Arabia or Doctor Zhivago ilk, filmic journeys that feel that the trip is just as important as the destination, and are not afraid to present it as such.

Set in 1890, a time when cowboys were rapidly losing new frontiers to explore, slowly lapsing into legend, Hidalgo centers on just such a man, Frank T. Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen). A former US Calvary dispatch rider and celebrated long distance horseman, horrified by the atrocities at the Battle (more like the massacre) of Wounded Knee, Hopkins has dissolved into the bottom of a bottle just as spectacularly as his horsemanship is supposed to be in Buffalo Bill’s famous Wild West show.

His horse, a scrappy Mustang named Hidalgo, is the only thing Hopkins has going for him, yet when he is challenged by a Sheik (Dr. Zhivago himself, Omar Sharif, who also co-starred in Lawrence and lends a certified air to this modern epic) to defend his title as “the greatest rider the West has ever known? by participating in the ‘Ocean of Fire’, a dangerous 3,000 mile survival race across the Arabian Desert, he subconsciously realizes that this may be his one chance at his own redemption, even though it may mean a horrible death, to himself, or more importantly to him, his horse.

The core of the film is the relationship between Hopkins and Hidalgo, a symbiotic brotherhood between man and animal as they face not only the blistering heat, deadly sandstorms and locust swarms of the harsh African desert, but also the political machinations and racial hatred of his fellow racers, the finest Bedouin riders mounted on the greatest Arabian horses owned by the richest royal families of the region.

It is here where the film falters in its narrative thrust, throwing in a conniving British femme fatale (Louise Lombard) and a Raiders of the Lost Ark-like interlude to rescue the Sheik’s daughter (Zuleikha Robinson) into the fray. Its as if director Joe Johnston (of The Rocketeer and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids fame) and screenwriter John Fusco (who handled similarly Western themes with Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron and The Young Guns films) didn’t trust the basics of the story, wanting to liven things up with a little intrigue and stunt-filled action when the truth (or as close to the truth as most Hollywood ‘based on a true story’ films can get) is more then sufficient.

What grounds the film in reality despite such action movie tropes (aside from the lush cinematography of Shelly Johnson and the always fine work of composer James Newton Howard) is the gritty, from-the-gut performance of Viggo Mortensen, an actor who makes you believe he is just such a man that can say such things as “pardner? and call his horse “little brother? without a hint of hokey irony.

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