Hidalgo is a movie trapped in the middle: A little too brutal to be family friendly and yet a little too wholesome to be fully geared for adults. It can never quite decide if it wants to be Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron or The Man from Snowy River.
Based on the life story of Frank T. Hopkins, Hidalgo tells the story of a Pony Express rider (Viggo Mortensen) and his horse Hidalgo as they journey to Arabia. Invited by a powerful Sheik (Omar Sharif), they become the first outsiders ever to participate in the “Ocean of Fire”; a three thousand mile survival race meant to test the most noble Arabian stallions ever bred. Hidalgo is only a Mustang, a wild mixed breed who serves as both Frank’s closest companion and his transportation. Frank too is of mixed blood and struggles to deal with his half Indian heritage in the midst of the last gasp of the Old West’s Native American tribes in the 1890’s.
What sells it is a jaunty performance by Viggo as a roguish adventurer struggling with questions of identity. It’s obvious he’s having fun with the role, racing across lively deserts, rescuing damsels, and flying at breakneck speeds on the backs of horses. Most importantly, he has a wonderful chemistry with his horse, who takes on a personality of his own in the film. Unlike last year’s Seabiscuit, Hidalgo is not easily replaced by a bicycle. He’s a character with personality and spirit. We care about what happens to Frank’s horse every bit as much as we care about him, and it’s from there that a movie like this draws its strength.
Hidalgo also manages to avoid the more tiresome cliché’s of Arabian adventure stories. It stays true to that period’s Muslim culture, with Viggo cast as an infidel outsider. Saving the Sheik’s daughter (Zuleikha Robinson) won’t change that, other than to gain him a little of the Sheik’s gratitude. Winning the big race may even make him a legend… but in the end, to them Frank is still just an outsider infidel. That makes Frank a bit of a loner, despite some oddly chosen peripheral characters randomly thrown into his camp. He works best that way, as a solitary figure better at being friends with a horse than men. As a result, we might have been fine without his kindness to slave boys, who he’ll only abandon whenever he sails back home.
As an adventure film, Hidalgo scores well, moving along fast enough to avoid boredom and slow enough to let us get to know the man/horse team we’re following around. It doesn’t flinch from the sometimes gruesome results of blade wielding fight scenes. Hidalgo in particular seems to get beat up by these, which means you may not want to take your kids. You’d think they might have thought twice before showing open-sand horse surgery in a movie that aside from realistic gore is most strongly geared towards families with kids. That’s doesn’t mean it isn’t good, it just means I’m not sure who Hidalgo’s target audience is. Adults will enjoy it, but might have enjoyed it more with little Bubba Jr. in the seats next to them.
Most of all, Hidalgo feels like it could have been better with someone smarter at the helm. It suffers at times from bad editing choices, which pre-emptively disconnect us from some of the film’s most emotional moments. In particular, a beautifully staged celebration scene at the end is hacked off in mid-stride in favor of a jump to something happening later… when we should be instead savoring a moment of victory. It isn’t that Director Joe Johnston isn’t capable. He does a nice enough job of capturing his story. He just isn’t particularly consistent. His camera often feels static, settling for the same shots over and over again when even I probably could have come up with a more cinematic angle. Other times though, Johnston delivers fantastic vistas, like a beautiful shot of hundreds of Mustangs racing across the prairie. Or the shot we’ve all seen in the trailer, with Frank and Hidalgo running madly to escape the world’s biggest sandstorm. The result is that the movie never quite has the truly epic feel that it might have had otherwise. Johnston either cuts away from his best scenes too early, or doesn’t give the film’s longer stretches quite enough attention.
A strong and well performed script propels Hidalgo along, but a more consistently creative eye behind the lens might have made this something more. Still, this is a solid flick for horse lovers, with the picture’s charismatic steed taking a wonderfully large chunk of its screen time. It’s nice to see a movie about horses that’s actually interested in letting us connect with its animal lead, instead of just using him the way Tony Hawk uses his skateboard. For that, Hidalgo gets a positive review and the assurance that though it isn’t the sparkling epic it might have been, Disney has ground out an agreeable winner.