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Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron   C-

DreamWorks Pictures

Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: G
Directors: Kelly Asbury, Lorna Cook
Writer: John Fusco
Cast: Matt Damon, James Cromwell, Daniel Studi.

Review by Rob Vaux

You can't fault Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron for a lack of ambition. After some early stumbles, DreamWorks Animation seems to have hit its stride, and clearly possesses the desire to be the new kings of the cartoon hill. Unfortunately for Spirit, that ambition overwhelms the better angels of its nature. This is a film deeply in love with the Old West, the West of Ansel Adams and Teddy Roosevelt. It strains mightily to deliver the wonders of Monument Valley and Yellowstone, the open plains of South Dakota and the painted deserts of New Mexico. Yet its solemn pretension prevents us from sharing the awe in which it holds itself. Its sense of freedom is as flighty and ephemeral as its equine protagonist.

The My Little Pony crowd, at least, will appreciate the modest joys Spirit has to offer. It presents the life of a wild stallion (the Spirit of the title) and his adventures among the human interlopers in his world. Everything about it is designed to mainline into young female sensibilities, though some elements have a slightly broader appeal. The animation itself is gorgeous, an absolute necessity in this day and age. Not only do the landscapes reflect the rich, vibrant colors of the American West, but directors Kelly Asbury and Lorna Cook depict Spirit and his fellow horses with exhilaration and energy. As pure eye candy, Spirit certainly manages admirably.

Unfortunately, that lushness never permeates the storyline. Instead, we get another in a seemingly endless series of preachy lectures about evil white men and the untamed frontier which they crushed beneath their boots. In an effort to keep his herd free from marauding cowpokes, Spirit allows himself to be caught and bridled, sent to a U.S. Cavalry outpost for domestication. But, as the film never quits reminding us, some spirits can't be broken, and the mustang soon escapes, helped by a young Indian brave (voiced by Daniel Studi, Wes' son), and pursued by the outpost's ruthless colonel (James Cromwell). Along the way, we get an endless demonstration on the damage inflicted by the whites, and the beautiful land (and native culture) that they desecrated. Certainly there's nothing wrong with setting the record straight about the darker side of manifest destiny, but it's been done before. Many, many, many times. Dances With Wolves hit 12 years ago, and frankly, the formula wasn't entirely new then. By now, it's been reduced to mealy-mouthed platitudes, and Spirit simply can't lay off, hammering the point home in the most direct and obvious manner possible. At the very least, they could have found a more original way to lecture us.

They pity is that the film could have been so much more. Amazingly, it doesn't rely on the standard talking-animal motif of most animated pictures -- despite the fact that many of the principle characters are beasts. The horses convey their emotions through whinnies, snorts, and facial expressions, relying on the animators for their personality rather than celebrity voices. The tactic allows Spirit to deliver a lot of narrative without dialogue, using visual cues and sound effects to tell its story. It's an admirable philosophy and might have made for a first-rate movie (check out The Bear, on video, if you want to see what such a style is capable of).

And yet, inexplicably, they undo it all by inserting an intrusive voice-over narration, provided by Spirit himself in the form of Matt Damon. Presumably, they wanted to make sure the children could follow the action. But kids are more perceptive than that, and the heavy-handed narration destroys the nearly wordless atmosphere that might have made this film distinct. We don't need thudding dialogue like "my heart galloped through the skies that night" to pound each and every emotion into our skulls. Add to that a disastrous set of songs by Bryan Adams, and you have some serious problems. I use the word "songs" loosely; Adams' maudlin rock ballads push the limits of derivative pretension, and Spirit inflicts a new one upon us every 10 minutes or so. You can't plaster your soundtrack with dentist office swill and then ask us to take you seriously.

If Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron has a saving grace, it lies in the target audience. Little girls don't usually get a movie all to themselves (little boys, apparently, have deeper pockets), and nothing brings them out in hordes like a bunch of cute horsies. Those under the age of 12 and lacking a Y chromosome (and indeed, the parents of said individuals) should have a fine time with this flick. It's safe, non-threatening, and relatively upbeat. For the rest of us, Spirit has little to offer but hot air and pretty pictures. Not everything that comes out of a horse is pleasant, and pretending otherwise won't make it so. Spirit should have taken better care where it stepped.

Review published 05.17.2002.

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