|Written by Darren Gross|
|Sunday, 01 June 2008|
On the ship over, Hopkins meets Lady Anne Davenport (Louise Lombard), a fellow competitor, who is sponsoring another horse in an effort to win breeding rights to a famous Arabian stallion. Sheikh Riyadh (Omar Sharif) greets all the competitors and is particularly taken with Hopkins, as he’s fascinated by stories of the West. The Sheikh is at odds with his daughter, Jazira (Zuleikha Robinson), whose hand in matrimony he has promised to the odious Prince Bin Al Reeh (Said Taghmaoui), if he wins the race. The race is a 3000-mile journey across vast deserts, with a long rest period at the halfway mark. Frank survives the grueling first half, but at the interval, he becomes caught up in several conspiracies. After Jazira is abducted, Hopkins endeavors to save her, untangle the plot, and win the race.
Director Joe Johnston and screenwriter John Fusco have crafted a rousing, thrilling adventure that harkens back to the spirit of action movies from Hollywood’s golden age. The race is used as a jumping off point for a series of chases, escapes, sword fights, double-dealing, and intrigues. The degree of poor sportsmanship on display makes the rogues gallery featured in “The Cannonball Run” look like lightweights. The locust, sandstorm and race sequences are exciting and well-executed, but the overstuffed narrative occasionally spins out of control, and one momentarily loses the thread of the story.
Viggo Mortensen is on-screen in nearly every scene and he makes Hopkins an engaging, interesting character that is easy to sympathize with and root for. He’s also blessed with an incredibly expressive horse, T.J. who plays Hidalgo. T.J. makes Hidalgo and Hopkins’s relationship believable, because of his expressive eyes and the personality that’s clearly on display. He’s the equine equivalent of Lassie. The supporting cast is well-chosen with Lombard a crisp and oily Lady Anne. The casting helps us delineate the supporting characters, who thankfully are each given something to distinguish them, such as a pet hawk, so that they aren’t often confused.
If anything weakens the film, it’s that the sprawling narrative stretches the film almost to the breaking point. There’s nothing I would elect to remove from this cut (though I’m sure many cuts have already been made to bring the running time down), but perhaps some subplots should have been eliminated or simplified so that the audience’s interest in the race wouldn’t be so completely usurped by the extraneous subplots and the action sequences that spill out at the midpoint. At times it feels like you are watching two movies.
While the entire film is involving and entertaining, there are times when the story’s focus becomes a muddle and you begin to question exactly what the movie is really about. During an epilogue sequence it all becomes clear, with the beginning, middle, and end all snapping into place for a conclusion that is surprisingly moving.
“Hidalgo” takes place in contrasting environments: snowy winter, dry summer, the sun-baked desert, and in the spring, with evocative, beautiful photography by Shelly Johnson. The BD release crisply captures the contrasting tones and the extremely varied visual (and oft muted) designs in a pleasing 1080p transfer. Director Johnston utilizes a great many epic wide-angle shots to tell his story and the disc presents these with an impressive degree of stability and clarity, enabling us to appreciate the fine detail in the compositions. Night sequences have more muted tones, and feature limited lighting. These are a bit grainier, as would be expected.
The uncompressed 5.1 PCM track is bold and exciting, capturing the layered and detailed sound design and the exciting, vibrant score. The music and effects sound terrific and the mix gives them both plenty of bold presence while keeping the dialogue clean and at an audible level. Bass usage is frequently intense, given the amount of pounding action sequences and hoofbeats on the track. A scene near the opening where a train passes over the camera is quite visceral and effective.
Bonus materials are limited to two featurettes. “Sand & Celluloid” is a brief promotional short featuring snippets of interview and behind-the-scenes footage that manages to cram a lot of information into 9 minutes. “America’s First Horse” runs 21 minutes and appears to have been prepared for television broadcast. It’s an informative program that explains the history of the mustang in America, Frank Hopkins’s efforts to save them and the breeders who currently continue his work. The scrolling menus on the disc are glacially slow and borderline unresponsive on the BDP-1000 and probably other first generation players, even those with more recent firmware upgrades. Navigating the menus to select settings or bonus materials is a maddening experience, on the level of Chinese water torture.