You might be forgiven for thinking, from the posters, that the titular hero of Hidalgo is played by Viggo Mortensen (Lord of the Rings). But Hidalgo is a mustang. The marketing folks at Disney can't seem to decide between pushing Viggo, a sudden commodity, or the horse, not coincidentally possessor of the second-worst horse name since Seabiscuit.
The desire to replicate the success of Seabiscuit, also about a horse beating the odds, has even led them to cling to the tag "based on a true story" long after the veracity of that claim has been demolished in the media. The story in question is about Frank Hopkins, a Pony Express courier in 1890, who enters a 3000-mile race through the deserts of Saudi Arabia.
For a true story, the plot derails into improbable adventure with enough tall-tale zest to make one wonder what was embellished. Never mind the details --- it has been widely established that the race itself never existed, and that Disney's sources were books that relied solely on Hopkins own storytelling. And anyone who sees this film and believes it all happened deserves to be deceived.
The movie plays like a direct transcript of the rambling pulp odysseys that charlatans like Hopkins used to build their own notoriety. This works for and against the film. It works for it when the tone is more that of a children's movie, with occasional (if inconsistent) storybook compositions and the sort of random plot that only a child's mind can cohere. (There were a lot of children in the audience, although their spirits did seem to drop with the first bit of violence done to a horse. And there was more graphic distress to come, so parents be advised.)
Unfortunately, as you wait to see what happens next, you have no occasion to care. There is never any sense of challenge in regard to the race, and never anything at stake with the horse, who seems at once ploddingly normal and reliably undefeatable. When Seabiscuit suffers a broken leg, it seems a miracle he is able to even race again. When Hidalgo is already worn to exhaustion and suffers a devastating wound, he jumps up, fights off and kills a cheetah (wisely, the film does not show how this is accomplished), and gallops on. Clearly, we do not need to worry about him, so we don't.
Hidalgo is really a minor player anyway, as the film is about Frank. Part Native American, and therefore very wise and everything, he is contrasted to no end with the mean and backward Arabs. The film debunks the Arabs' concept of the power of lineage, yet celebrates Frank's lineage and uses it to explain his win. But it is less a triumph of that half of his heritage (which he hides) than that of his white identity (his nickname during the race is "Cowboy").
It Frank's roughhewn frontier noblesse that routs the Arabs, wins their admiration, and has them shouting "Cowboy! Cowboy!" at the end --- which no doubt will guarantee Hidalgo a showing at the White House, if nothing else.
--- Andy Davis