Spirit – Stallion of the Cimarron

In the Old American West lived one of the unheralded heroes of freedom and natural resources - a wild mustang, "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron."

Laura's Review: B+

Animation guru Jeffrey Katzenberg gives his artists a real challenge - the first feature animation with the notoriously difficult to draw horse as its main character - and they meet it. Production designer Kathy Altieri ("The Prince of Egypt") and a team of animation supervisors have captured the glories of the American West in a film which seamlessly marries traditional cel animation with the computer generated.

In a dazzling opening shot, we get an eagle's eye view of river canyons and fields of grazing bison before being introduced to the Cimarron herd just as Spirit's mother gives birth. The young colt grows up in a sequence reminiscent of Disney's "Bambi," all playful gamboling and humorous youthful lessons learned. Unlike that film, however, none of the animals in "Spirit" talk. Instead Matt Damon ("All the Pretty Horses") narrates the central character's thoughts.

Spirit becomes a stunning stallion and the protector of his herd, but his curiosity becomes his undoing when he sniffs about a human campsite and is captured. The wild horse will not be broken and humiliates the cavalry colonel (James Cromwell, "The Sum of All Fears") who tries. The colonel's other prisoner, Lakota Indian Little Creek (Daniel Studi), bonds with the horse and they make their escape. While Spirit refuses to be ridden by the friendlier 'two-legged,' Little Creek's paint mare Rain guides him toward an acceptance of the Indian way of life, but the evils of technological progress present the two wild spirits with yet another battle.

Making their directorial debut, animation veterans Kelly Asbury and Lorna Cook guide all the elements into a fine family entertainment. At under 85 minutes, the film is fast paced without obscuring its points. Screenwriter John Fusco ("Young Guns") has fashioned a rousing story from a horse's point of view that promotes the values of its titular character's name. While the narration is sometimes overly simplistic, the action is full of detail. The film's climax may even be a reference to a scene in Werner Herzog's "Fitzcaraldo" notorious for causing the deaths of native South American Indians. The narration is fleshed out by the songs of Oscar nominated songwriter Bryan Adams, whose "Get Off of My Back" is likely to be hummed as audiences leave the theater. Music by Hans Zimmer ("Gladiator") fills and flirts with the soundtrack.

Technically, the film offers many visual delights. Water and machinery sequences are often photo-realistic. Spirit and Little Creek's final declaration of freedom is simply breathtaking.

Robin's Review: B+

The human will is brought to new heights but the hero in this latest animation from DreamWorks is not a man, not a woman, but a horse in the Old West in "Spirit: Stallion of Cimarron."

This is an intelligent western film-for-the-whole-family that will delight the younger kids with its brisk, highly vibrant animation that abounds with visual action, tense moments and syrupy tunes. The "Little Big Man" like story shows the trials and tribulations the title equine character, Spirit, must face on his journey to adventure, which should also help plant the seeds of imagination in the older kids. The solid storytelling, intelligent production and fine animation will have appeal for teens through adults (although the teens are probably worn out with repeated screenings of "Spider-Man" and "Star Wars: Episode II"). "Spirit" represents a tale that appeals to all ages.

"Spirit: Stallion of Cimarron" holds much akin to the live action wildlife features that Disney produced in to 50's and 60's. Films like "The Incredible Journey" (1963) and "Nikki, Wild Dog of the North" can be compared to this new fable of one young horse, destined to be a leader, as he matures into the title character. In a departure from what we normally get in today's American animated features, there are no talking or singing animals to be found. Sure, Spirit and his fellow horses complexly communicate with each other and are given anthropomorphic facial expressions to show mirth, resolve, playfulness, thoughtfulness and anger. But, they act like horses, not humans, and, as such, get along with each other..

The human characters are drawn in realistic tones, too. You won't see a Gaston or a LaFou in the bunch when Spirit's curiosity gets the better of him as he fails to heed the warnings of tethered cavalry horses and walks right into a soldiers' camp. His capture, by the troopers, leads him to an army outpost under the command of a martinet colonel who makes it his mission to break the freedom-loving mustang stallion. This begins with a comic aside straight out of a John Ford western when a burly blacksmith attempts to shoe and brand the independent Spirit, none too successfully.

The voiceover narration by Matt Damon, with reminiscences as the title character, is used to bridge each adventure vignette that Spirit enters, like chapters in a book. Damon isn't bad but the recounting is not really necessary to the telling the story. The animators, themselves, succeed in conveying all the emotion, feeling and communication simply but effectively with a whinny or a neigh.

The blending of traditional cel animation and computer-generated imagery is taken to a new level in "Spirit." In the recent past, the CGI was relegated to flushing out the background to give the action more depth than can be accomplished with 2D animation alone. Here, the newcomer directing team of Kelly Asbury and Lorna Cook (both veteran animators with their Disney and DreamWorks experience) seamlessly join the two techniques up front and it reps a true melding of art and science. Some of the complex action sequences start out as 3D, morph into traditional 2D, then back to 3D and it is impossible for my old eyes to spot the transitions.

I'm not a fan of Bryan Adams but the syrupy, sentimental, inspirational songs work well at a level to keep the younger kids' ears busy while the slick, fast-paced animation, entertains their eyes. The exciting score by Oscar winner Hans Zimmer ("The Lion King") suits the quick moving story that follows our hero, Spirit, through his many adventures in the Wild West. The screenplay, by John Fusco ("Crossroads"), takes the brave horse through his paces, so to speak, as he starts out as a lovable little foal, turns into an equally likable yearling then become the wise and protective leader of his heard. Spirit is an adventuresome lad, and his need to explore the unknown brings him to unexpected places and unanticipated events.

There are some pretty darn exciting moments during "Spirit" that I won't ruin for you, but there is a train sequence that gave me sweaty palms. The action and Spirit's sheer physical ability make this a larger than life tale. Sequences, such as the battle of wills and the rivalry between the horse and the equally stubborn colonel, whom Spirit dubs "Snake" (James Cromwell), make for some of the best western action that I have seen in years. The friendship that develops between the equine star and Little Creek (voice Daniel Studi) is one based on equality as each proves his loyalty and affection for the other. The required romance between Spirit and Little Creek's favorite pony, Rain (a babe by all accounts), is wholesome and sweet and has its own share of angst (to the point where I had tears in my eyes).

A solid family western adventure, "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron" is a good alternative to the rest of the niche/ fan-oriented films out there. This is one that the parents can look forward to when the kids tell 'em they want to se it. It's kind of old fashioned and reps solid animated story telling.