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Walt Disney Pictures
You know, it’s kind of sad. Viggo Mortensen, one of the great under-appreciated actors of the last decade, finally finds mainstream success with The Lord of the Rings trilogy (even in a part that was not even his when filming began) and then follows up three years of countless magazine covers and nonstop press with Hidalgo, a Disney movie that couldn’t get much more cliché if it included Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi character from Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
I suppose Mortensen’s natural attraction to the movie’s material can be excused—raised on a ranch in Argentina, the future king of Middle Earth rode horses throughout a good part of his childhood. In fact, Mortensen did most of his own riding and stunts for Hidalgo, and after shooting for the film wrapped, he bought the horse used in the film. However, despite his partiality towards all things equine, Mortensen could have—indeed should have—followed his star-making turn in The Lord of the Rings series with a film that allowed him to show off the range of his newly appreciated acting ability, not merely his horse-riding skills.
There is little substance in Hidalgo. Ostensibly, the film is based on the true story of Frank Hopkins, a long-distance horse-racer who is invited to partake in “the Ocean of Fire,” a 3,000-mile horse race across the Arabian Peninsula. Hopkins’ horse, Hidalgo, is a mustang, a wild mixed-breed horse that was introduced to the Americas with the arrival of the Spaniards to the New World. In the world of horse racing these mixed-breeds are considered, according to the movie, unworthy to share the road with purebred horses, exemplified here by the sleek Arabians.
The movie’s twist is that Hopkins was born to a white father and a Sioux mother—he is a half-breed himself. As expected, Hidalgo quickly devolves into yet another story about the power of the human will to overcome adversity and have pride in what you are and where you came from. Given that Disney produced the film, the outcome of the race, and the film, is a foregone conclusion. The bad guys have deep growly voices that prove their deceitfulness, the faithful sidekick/servant dies while saving important lives in the process, and there is just enough racial profiling to make their point while avoiding controversy.
But perhaps I am being too harsh; for all its faults, the film is cheeky and rather fun. Some of the cinematography is amazing, capturing perfectly the barren beauty of the desert. But, in the end, the cliché-driven script is just too much, even for such accomplished and talented actors as Viggo Mortensen and Omar Sharif.
So, a shame. From beginning to end, Hidalgo looks and feels like a Disney movie, fraught with sentimentality and banality. Perhaps if a production company focused on an adult audience had financed the film, it would have been easier to recommend. As it stands, Hidalgo feels like it comes in third place when everyone was expecting the gold.
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