Horse tales

Disney presents silly little white lie.

About 77 years ago, a Philadelphia newspaper reporter landed a front-page feature about a Wild West hero and master horseman found working on a crew digging a subway tunnel. The man, Frank T. Hopkins, told the reporter all about his days in the Buffalo Bill Cody show and his adventures on the frontier. “It’s the memories that does it,” he says. “I don’t talk more than two words for days; and then someone gets me going on about hawses or ropin’ or the plains, and it seems like I never will stop. It was my real life, out there. I live it over again and again.”

The legend of Frank Hopkins grew from there, mostly through his own self-promotion. Hidalgo is Disney’s version of the story of Hopkins and the mustang he rode to victory in a 3,000-mile race through the Middle Eastern desert in 1890. Except that in the process of cranking up the publicity machine for what Disney thought was a surefire winner, it found out Hopkins was a world-class fraud.

Thanks to the work of an association for long-distance horse riders, we can now state a few hard facts about Hopkins’ life. First of all, there was no horse named Hidalgo, no “Ocean of Fire” race, no Sioux Indian mother and no 32-year career in the Buffalo Bill show. The most truthful thing that can be said about Hopkins is that when he first spun his tales, he was a 60-year-old man digging holes for a living on the verge of the Great Depression. (Historians, academics and journalists have since piled on with more criticism.)

Yet Hidalgo still opens with the words “based on the true story of Frank T. Hopkins,” and ends with postscripts about Hopkins’ supposed legend, including a statement that he won 400 endurance races and notes on where the descendants of Hidalgo live today.

Apparently, Disney continues spreading such fiction for fear Hidalgo isn’t adequate as just a plain and simple (fictional) story.

The first 30 minutes of Hidalgo feels remixed rather than scripted, with stock characters and dialogue from a dozen other films jangled together (with even a living Peter Lorre look-alike). Viggo Mortensen, attempting to establish a career path that’s more Harrison Ford than Mark Hamill, shows up looking like a Ralph Lauren model who was kidnapped from a shoot for the fall catalog.

Once the race begins, it sets up a Viggo of Arabia scenario with a few too many Arabic stereotypes and more than enough shots of a man riding a horse through the desert. To spark some energy, there’s the occasional action sequence — which is where director Joe Johnston gives Hopkins unlimited bullets from his Colt revolver — and a running philosophical debate over determinism versus free will for human and equine species.

Mortensen seems too reserved, as if whispering most of his lines makes his character seem powerful and mysterious. The only other actor that leaves an impression is Hidalgo. I can imagine the production notes from execs demanding more reaction shots from the horse.

For the final act, Johnston cranks the patented Disney schmaltz-machine up to 11, and manages to generate enough weepy fog to send the audience home nearly satisfied. That ol’ magic kingdom touch is the reason cable giant Comcast wants to buy Disney for $49 billion, but if Hidalgo represents the state of Disney’s cinema arts, Comcast may want to bet on a different hawse.

E-mail Justin Hyde at [email protected].

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