In this sweet but syrupy and formulaic combination of whimsy and inspiration, Anthony Hopkins seems to be having a ball playing Burt Munro, an eccentric, grizzled New Zealander with a passion for old motorcycles who travels to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah to set a new speed record on his modified 1920 Indian Scout. Writer-director Roger Donaldson made a documentary about the real Munro back in 1971, and ever since he’s nurtured the idea of doing a fictional account of the old man’s picaresque journey to triumph. Now Hopkins’ enthusiastic participation has allowed him to fulfill that dream, just as the variety of helpful people Munro met during his trip permitted him to realize his some that three decades ago. The result is the sort of feel-good geezer piece–both funny and touching–that’s always been a staple of network telefilms. It’s an utterly manipulative genre, of course, but when done with the exuberance and canniness that Donaldson and Hopkins bring to it, it’s hard to resist.

In this semi-fictionalized account, Munro first appears as a local celebrity in his remote hometown, idolized by the young boy who lives across the road and whose parents look upon the odd old man with a mixture of affection and concern. Hopkins, sporting a fine Kiwi accent, makes him a fussily endearing crank, obsessed with getting his aged cycle going as straight-line fast as possible and happily taking on some dismissive young toughs in an impromptu race even if he doesn’t come out on top. He takes off on his odyssey to America with a sort of blissful impracticality, working his way across the ocean as an ad-hoc cook on a steamer before reaching the States and managing to get his cycle into the country only with the help of some affable customs officers. He also relies on the good will of people he meets–including a flamboyantly transvestite motel clerk, a gregarious used car dealer, and a lonely woman he stays with briefly while driving to the Flats–to get to his destination, and on the intervention of other enthusiasts to secure him a slot in the race although he hasn’t gone through the required preregistration regimen. Of course, in this sort of geriatric fairy tale Burt is such a peculiarly charismatic bloke that strangers can’t help but be drawn to him and give him a hand. The denouement, of course, is his amazing showing in the climactic race and his triumphant return Down Under.

Donaldson’s movie doesn’t tell us a great deal about what made Burt Munro the person he was. As written, he does let slip a few facts about his past–the death of a brother, for instance, and recollections of the great flu epidemic of the early twentieth century–but what you see is pretty much what you get. What saves the picture is that what you see is engaging, primarily because Hopkins, on screen nearly non-stop and talking a blue streak, makes the old fellow a likable coot. He’s so good that you can understand why the other characters are drawn to Munro despite his obvious peculiarities. But Hopkins isn’t without support in front of the camera: Diane Ladd (as the woman who invites him into her bed), Paul Rodriguez (as the car dealer who gives him a job), Chris Williams (as the motel clerk) and Chris Lawford (as a racer who’s instrumental in getting Burt his shot at glory) all do good work, and young Aaron Murphy is charming without becoming cloying as the neighbor boy who’s drawn to him. Technically the film is solid rather than spectacular, but it will do, with David Gribble’s cinematography especially nice (though J. Peter Robinson’s score lays it on rather thick at times).

“The World’s Fastest Indian” was obviously a labor of love for Donaldson, and it could be argued that his affection for the old duffer at the center of the story sometimes gets the better of his good judgment in telling it. The film does tug at the heartstrings awfully insistently, and at times you’ll feel you’re really being had. But the picture is Hopkins’ show from beginning to end, and the opportunity to watch a great actor at the top of his form goes far to compensate for the tendency to sentimentalize things. In a way the movie is like listening to a colorful septuagenarian spin yarns about his life. You may have to take a lot of what you hear with a grain of salt, but that doesn’t mean you’re not entertained by listening to what he has to say.

The result may not be the world’s best movie, but it’s a reasonably enjoyable ride even if the destination is never in doubt.