Let me assure you another thing: this movie blows.
I normally try not to be so abrasive in my judgment on a film, but this film really sucks. From frame one we’re told this is a true story, chronicling the real adventure of one man attempting one hell of a race. Well, it becomes obvious almost from the start that this story is less of a true historical tale than it is a tale so tall that Paul Bunyan would have seen and just said “Damn.”
The film wastes no time before we’re thrown a series of clichés-- there’s a snooty jockey who thinks Frank and his mustang of mixed breeding should not be allowed in prestigious endurance races. Viggo is fine with these insults, of course, until the guy brings his horse into the argument, and the scene that follows is probably what “A Fistful of Dollars” would have played like if Disney had watered it down for the masses. Right after this tussle, Viggo is presented with cliché #2: Nervous Army Mail Boy. Nervous Army Mail Boy has a message to deliver out in the frontier, and it’s urgent, and he asks Viggo to take the order out to the general. Why Viggo doesn’t tell the guy to piss off is beyond me, but he takes the order, mounts up and heads out.
He arrives at the army encampment, which is currently in the middle of replanting another Native American tribe somewhere where they won’t inconvenience the government or settlers. The army is, of course, brutish and trigger happy, and before you know it the entire Indian tribe is shot down in front of Viggo’s eyes. Oh, yeah, of course, Viggo is half-Cherokee, but he tries to hide that fact so he won’t be persecuted for being a half breed. And, see, he’s a half breed, and Hidalgo’s a half breed, and together, they form an unstoppable team of spirit and strength and...
Is anybody else’s cheese-radar going off like Bobby Brown after a bad night of drinking?
It’s not long before Frank is given the chance by some representatives of a sheik to participate in the Ocean of Fire contest, and he’s off to the Middle East, but not before being given some money by No Charisma Southern Lady. Oh, and J.K. Simmons is on hand with fake mustache to grumble and fire a six shooter, before vanishing entirely from the plot. Then Frank’s on a fancy 19th-century cruise ship, complete with stock Evil English Bitch character. As we all know, Evil English Bitch is also entering a horse in the race, and plans to cheat her way to winning, because if her horse wins the race then it will become the dominant horse breeder in all of England, and produce other, smaller Horses of Mass
Destruction, and she will make millions as her prize horse puts his Seabiscuit in every mare in the United Kingdom. Because, as we all know, in a period piece where there’s a rugged American as the hero, we are required to have at least one evil Brit screwing our protagonist three ways from Tuesday.
When Frank arrives in the Middle East, he’s introduced to Omar Sharif, the sheik of both the kingdom putting on the race and of every scene he’s in. This is one of the film’s only saving graces-- Omar commands your attention and your interest piques when he’s on screen, probably because you’re left wishing he would start relating the story of T.E. Lawrence and we’d be given a flashback to the better and more interesting white-man-in-the-desert story rather than this pale imitation.
Of course, the film can’t let things be interesting for too long, so after Frank is introduced to Omar, we are then introduced to our next stock character in this pile of horse manure: the Beautiful Young Princess Who Wants to Be a Man character. See, she’s feisty and restless and doesn’t really want to marry the man her father has selected for her. So this is what a live-action version of Aladdin looks like...
Next up, we get the two most annoying clichés: Heavy-Accented Middle Eastern Servant and Adorable Black Slave Child. Really, they want us to buy this as a true story and they hand us this crap? Did we really need the flesh-and-blood Bollywood version of C-3PO in this film? Here’s a character whose sole purpose is to lament about how our hero is doomed, how Frank will never survive, how Allah wishes his death and will make him die slowly and painfully, and before the end of the race he will be--you guessed it--dead. Then Adorable Black Slave Child shows up and I throw my hands up in frustration. This is an action movie starring Aragorn, King of Men, not a PSA for how Arabic people are backwards slave drivers and Americans are the epitome of human kindness.
Eventually, the plot remembers this is about a horse race, and we’re shown the antique version of the beginning of the pod race from Episode I. Once the damn thing finally starts, the plot, which had until now been chugging along at a slow, predictable, but adequate pace, slows to a downright trot. The big action centerpiece, the whole basis of the film is happening, and Viggo spends a majority of the film trotting through the desert. We fade to a sun coming up, Viggo is still bee-bopping along the desert, the sun goes down, Viggo is still taking his damn time getting anywhere, fade to the sun coming back up, and you guessed it, Viggo is still taking the scenic route through the movie. Then we get to a watering hole, where some of the Arabic jockeys who think Viggo should not have participated in the race (because as we all know, Americans are open-minded and accepting of other nation's cultures and the rest of the world just hates us for no reason) have bribed the British command (my GOD these guys were just a nation of pricks, weren't they?) stationed there to refuse Viggo water when he finally decides to join the plot. Viggo, being the All-American Hero, whoops the British dude's ass and gets his water just in time to participate in the part of the race sponsored by Imhotep-- that's right, this film has a CG sandstorm to try and make you interested again, but the sequence is about 90 seconds long and consists of Viggo running into the ruins of an old town and closing his eyes and hugging his horse. Aaaaaand scene.
Oh yeah, I forgot to introduce you to my favorite cliché: Evil Young Nephew of The King Who Wants to Rule The Kingdom. This guy is just an out-and-out bastard from the first frame (he even has your standard Evil Arab goatee! Good Arabs have shaggy beards, bad Arabs have goatees!), and despite his being a known leader of a group of bandits and him stating outright that he wants to rule in his uncle's place (to his uncle's face, mind you), he's still allowed to participate in the race. He wants his uncle's prize horse, which Omar Sharif is only letting the mysterious Prince Who Will Marry My Daughter character ride. So, of course, Evil Nephew raids the camp, Viggo gets to shoot people and show off his fencing skills again, Omar Sharif makes the ONE cool kill in the film, and things get back to being boring when the Restless Daughter is kidnapped by Evil Nephew. What follows there is a twenty-minute segment that has nothing to do with horse racing at all, and everything to do with ripping off Raiders of the Lost Ark while proving that this story has the smartest horse ever created ANYWHERE. This horse could probably do my trigonometry homework if I asked it to. I’m willing to bet this horse could have written this review, translated it into Aramaic, and then read it back to you in Polynesian if you were so inclined. Add on top of that the CG Scooby-Doo eyes they randomly give the horse to allow the existence of a cartoonishly human expression.
The hits just keep on coming from there. This film has every pitfall and plot twist from Adventure Scriptwriting 101, while the director, Joe Johnston, falls victim to the frighteningly increasing Hollywood mentality that every movie needs no fewer than four computer-generated action sequences. By the time the poorly rendered cheetahs show up in the middle of the Arabian Desert (one of which gets trampled and killed by Hidalgo the Wonder Horse), I decided that the film just wasn’t going to pick a genre, tone, mood, or plot. When we are subjected to Viggo chanting in Cherokee as a mirage of a cardboard cutout of a smiling Native American appears before his eyes, I kept asking myself why this film feels the need to be PC about every damn subject. Is this a fun popcorn flick? No, it’s far too self-important and melodramatic for that. Is it a thrilling dramatic adventure? Not that, either, as the script keeps throwing every conventional plot device at us and expects us not to demand more. How about a fun slice of history? Well, there is no possible way the events portrayed in this movie are even remotely true, let alone accurate. The Coen Brothers put the “Based on a True Story” moniker for their film Fargo, but at least admitted it was a joke. Hidalgo is a joke, too, just not a very funny one, nor one that proves to be very engaging.
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