Horse Opera 

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Heroes Frank Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen) and his noble Mustang Hidalgo outrace a deadly dust storm. (courtesy photo)
Hang up the reins on this one

There seems to be a new rule operating in movie-land: If a film has horses in it, it's going to be long. Probably too long.

Oscar-watchers who noted Viggo Mortensen's absence during the Oscar sweep for Return of the King (a conscientious observer of the length rule, if not its "too long" corollary) may be unsurprised to learn that their favorite orc-slayer was busy with a horse - still trying to get across the desert in time for this film's release.

The problem with Hidalgo, though, isn't its running-time (it feels longer than it is) but an overall lack of wit. It might seem mean-spirited to warn readers that screenwriter John Fusco penned the Brat Pack Western Young Guns (surely the statute of limitations has run out on that 1988 classic), but he is also responsible for 2002's equine cartoon, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, which is a fair indicator of the depth of characterization here.

Hidalgo gives us a Sheikh who would risk his daughter's life for the sake of a prized horse, defending his attitude with the stock line, "What matters to my house is honor." It establishes its themes with the subtlety of a spur in the side: Our hero Frank Hopkins, working for the U.S. Cavalry, hides his partial American-Indian ancestry while his employers run roughshod over his people. Hopkins' horse Hidalgo, on the other hand, is a noble Mustang whose mixed breed earns the contempt of serious horse-folk. The scrappy steed will be Hopkins' salvation, helping him discover the importance of his heritage and proving that spirit wins out over snobbery.

As the movie begins, Hopkins, after witnessing the Massacre at Wounded Knee, has debased himself, taking to the bottle and hiring himself out as a curiosity in Buffalo Bill's famous Wild West show, where Hidalgo is touted as the world's greatest long-distance racer.

That boast leads to a challenge from the other side of the world: Hopkins is invited to enter "The Ocean of Fire," a 3,000-mile desert race that has taken place annually for a thousand years. Across a merciless terrain, Hidalgo will be tested against Arabian purebreds whose ancestry can be traced back for centuries and whose owners are royalty.

Hidalgo

Dir. Joe Johnston; writ. John Fusco; feat. Viggo Mortensen, Omar Sharif, Zuleikha Robinson, J.K. Simmons (PG-13)
The story wants to be a rip-roaring, old-fashioned adventure, but director Joe Johnston veers a bit into the faux-retro territory of flicks like 1999's The Mummy - especially when, recreating the perils of the desert, Johnston takes a page from the computer-assisted fantasies of his earlier Jurassic Park III and Jumanji. There's a whiff of unnecessarily goofy CGI work early on, when racers are overtaken by an awkward looking sandstorm, but things don't get really ugly until the end is near. In a last-ditch attempt at sabotage, Hopkins' foes unleash a pair of ferocious felines on him, and the leopards are so obviously fake that one wishes Johnston knew more about creative editing of live-action footage than he knows about digital manipulation.

Or maybe not. The director has a little too much fun in that department, with at least three cutesy scenes in which he cuts from an intimate human moment to Hidalgo's long face, implying that the horse has Mister Ed-like opinions about his owner's love life. (That gag is pretty square, but at least Fusco doesn't have to write dialogue for it.)

Nature-boy Mortensen is game for all this, putting on his best drawl and calling his horse "Brother," but after five years in Middle Earth, maybe it's time for him to hang up the reins for a while - after Tolkien and Peter Jackson, horse operas like this one look horribly tame. •


More by John DeFore

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