"Hidalgo" stars the magnetically scruffy and unruffled Viggo Mortensen ("The Lord of the Rings") as Frank Hopkins, a famously fast Pony Express rider who became a long-distance legend in 1890 when he and his undersized mustang were the first Westerners to enter the most grueling horse race in the world -- 3,000 parched miles across the Arabian desert.

The film is based on a true story -- well, except for the romance with a sheikh's fiery daughter, the swordfights and shootouts, the kidnapping, and the conspiracies and double-crosses that lead to such things. (Now that's what I call fictionalization!) But if there's a good movie to be made from such archaic adventure clich├ęs, this picture has the right guy behind the wheel: director Joe Johnston.

Having helmed "The Rocketeer," Disney's wonderfully corny revival of 1940s science-fiction superhero-dom, and "October Sky," a vivid, timeless, 1950s-style feel-good biography about a real NASA scientist's rocket-building teens, Johnston has a knack for finding freshness in the most hackneyed of stories. He even breathed new surprises into the third "Jurassic Park" movie. So bring on the quicksand, sandstorms and locusts! After "Hidalgo," I'm starting to think this guy can mold any perfunctory script into a thoroughly fun and satisfying Saturday matinee.

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