When it comes to playing disillusioned veterans of anti-Indian atrocities, it's Viggo Mortensen over Tom Cruise by a nose. Like a more immediately acceptable version of Cruise's sodden samurai, Mortensen's cowboy hero Frank Hopkins shakes off the lingering horrors of genocide -- in this case, the massacre at Wounded Knee -- and embarks on a quest that may reclaim him his soul. Hopkins' goal is to win a cross-desert horse race that carries a $100,000 prize purse; to do it, he and his trusty Mustang, Hidalgo, will have to overcome such nightmarish obstacles as a cataclysmic sandstorm, a hail of locusts and the lust of an Englishwoman. She lusts for Frank, you understand, not the horse -- it's a Disney movie.
As such, it's played at a fairly cutesy pitch, with Middle Eastern goatherders and genital mutilation among the sources of comic relief. But whenever you start to tire of hearing Mortensen's Hopkins address one of the other characters as "pardner," director Joe Johnston ("Jumanji," "Jurassic Park III") throws in a welcome moment of grown-up gravity to keep faith with the upper echelon of his PG-13 audience. Men and animals alike take a bit of a beating in Johnston's history-based adventure, and while "Hidalgo" isn't about to surpass "The Passion of the Christ" on anybody's gore meter, the touches of shocking physicality impart a genuine sense of consequence to a potentially trivial horse opera.