From the horse’s mouth
A combo of traditional animation and computer wizardry, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron is a beautiful looking movie that suffers a bit due to some lousy Bryan Adams songs. Ultimately, it’s a sweet story told in a unique, surprisingly inventive way.
The movie chronicles the Old West as seen through the eyes of a horse. Unlike your usual Disney fare, Dreamworks has opted to not have the animals in their feature talk like humans. They communicate through facial expressions, whinnies, snorts and neighs, and the effect is entertaining and adorable.
The title character, a stallion of unbreakable spirit, has “thoughts” voiced by a bland Matt Damon, but we never see Damon’s vocals coming from the horse’s mouth. The portions of the film where the horses communicate without human language are often so effective that I wonder if the Damon narration is even necessary. Yes, it tells us the aspects of the story that can’t be expressed with a horse sound, but the story isn’t so complex that we need help understanding it. Damon’s droning narration doesn’t do major damage to the film, but it doesn’t do much to enhance it.
The same can be said for some rather kitschy songs by Bryan Adams, who has provided material that could be best described as “throwaway.” They are lyrically banal, with Adams role-playing as a mustang, a transition that his pop star persona doesn’t pull off. His sound, while OK for one or two songs, is inappropriate for this movie’s entire soundtrack. I just expected him to punctuate every passage about running free through the wild with “… and it cuts like a knife!” Could’ve been worse. They could’ve hired Sting.
Soundtrack problems aside, the main character is an enjoyable one, and I liked how the film pitted him against the American cavalry, nicely personified in a colonel voiced by James Cromwell. The colonel’s determination to break the horse’s spirit, and a touching camaraderie with an Indian brave (Daniel Studi), are handled well by writers Kelly Asbury and Lorna Cook.
The writers and directors of this film have the unenviable task of presenting a story without the tool of spoken words for much of the picture. While this would be a tough enough procedure in a live-action film, just think of the forethought that must’ve gone into the creation of this unconventional animated movie. The artists had to draw the imagery based on expressive directions rather than the English language, and they somehow manage this feat. It some ways, Spirit is a milestone of a movie.
The technical achievements are first rate. An opening sequence where we soar over landscapes with a nicely drawn eagle is breathtaking, as is a moment where a steam engine crashes through a military camp and starts a forest fire. It’s refreshing to see a nice combination of traditional animation and gigabytes. Visually, this one is miles above rival studio Disney’s latest traditional entries.
Now, do I think the public will be impressed? Perhaps not, because animated features are often not this complex, and filmgoers might not have patience with its intentions. I will not be surprised to hear others annoyed by what I found impressive. It is certainly a different sort of animated cartoon, and moviegoers might get restless when the horses fail to exchange zippy one-liners or bust out singing.
If your child loves horses and you have the patience to wade through some nauseating Bryan Adams tunes, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron might be a safe alternative to Spider-Man and Star Wars. It’s pretty, it’s harmless and it’s a welcomed change of pace for animated movies.