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Painted ponies, painted deserts, painted colonialist hussies with rather more glacial composure than you’d expect in the Sahara—Hidalgo’s a picture, all right, and director Joe (Jumanji) Johnston crams way too much into its frame. It’s the real-life story of a bighearted mustang and the tormented cowpoke who rides him to glory in a 3,000-mile endurance race staged by Lawrence of Arabia—OK, not Lawrence, but that’s Omar Sharif hamming it up as the Bedouin sheik who does run the show, so you’d be forgiven for getting your sand-dune sequences mixed up. And OK, it’s probably not all that real-life: Here’s betting the three-way neck-and-neck finish by horses tied to the three main narrative threads has more to do with Hollywood than with history. Hidalgo is the horse, and a dirty-blond, weatherbeaten Viggo Mortensen is Frank Hopkins, the dispatch rider and distance-race champ who’s seen better days. Worse, too: An early sequence details his on-the-margins involvement at Wounded Knee, the 1890 massacre mythologized as a U.S. Cavalry triumph by the marketers of Manifest Destiny—including Buffalo Bill Cody, in whose touring Wild West show the drink-addled Hopkins is performing when the desert-race challenge reaches his ears. He accepts as much for the $100,000 purse as for the chance to prove his mongrel horse’s mettle—and in one of the cheesiest feel-good plot lines ever, he discovers, among the purebred stallions of which the Bedouins and the British are so proud, how to value what he and his steed have in common. Hidalgo is structured sturdily enough, but the dialogue is laughable and the tone desperately uneven: Johnston and scripter John Fusco can’t decide whether Hopkins’ story should be a high-lyrical saga à la Dances With Wolves or a Disney-style buddy comedy with a smart-aleck sidekick and an animal lead that does everything but talk. So they try both, and more besides, and the result is as pretty and as perilous as the quicksand-pocked desert expanses Johnston’s camera keeps lingering over. You’ll get sucked in, but it ain’t gonna be fun gettin’ out. —Trey Graham