Especially when seen in the digital format, DreamWorks’ animated follow-up to their smash “Shrek” is visually quite breathtaking. “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” has been made in a fairly traditional fashion, with a mix of hand-drawn figures and computer-effected backgrounds, rather than via the fully computer-generated technique of its Oscar-winning predecessor and the Pixar films for Disney, but it’s no less beguiling to the eye. The western vistas are absolutely gorgeous, with enormous attention to detail and beautiful overall composition, and the character drawing is first-rate too–simultaneously expressive and stylish. From the technical perspective, “Spirit” is a remarkable achievement.
Would that the narrative were worthy of the visual artistry. On the surface the tale–of a adventurous wild mustang, the young leader of his herd, who’s captured by cavalrymen and mistreated by a cruel colonel (James Cromwell), only to escape in the company of a Lakota brave named Little Creek (Daniel Studi) and struggle to preserve his freedom and keep his pristine home untouched by the ravages of “civilization”–seems somewhat ground-breaking in that neither the protagonist nor other animals in the story speak in the fashion of past animated films. (We do, however, follow the story through narration provided by Matt Damon as the “inner voice” of the horse, and of course the human characters talk.) Basically, however, the picture is a sort of equestrian variant of the “Bambi” story, encompassing a number of modern politically-correct stances. One is the environmental aspect, which implicitly denounces the “conquest” (and defilement) of the plains by the advent of the railroad. Another is the criticism of the soldiers, who seek to stifle and break the natural vitality that the unbowed Spirit represents. A third is the glorification of the Native American concept of living in harmony with nature rather than attempting to subjugate and control of it. These are themes which will undoubtedly appeal to many, but they’re dramatized in such a simplistic fashion (especially in the figure of the cruel, domineering colonel, who might as well have been named Custer) that the didacticism of the result will come across as heavy-handed and trite, even to the young audiences toward whom “Spirit” is primarily directed.
Still, despite misgivings one might have about the content, the appearance of the film is so lustrous that it goes far to make up for the weaknesses. The more “intimate” moments have a coyness about them that can grow tiresome, and there’s a tendency toward the cute that gets ladled on pretty thick (a brief scene between Spirit and an Indian toddler comes immediately to mind). But the frequent action episodes are superlatively done–the chases are particularly exhilarating–and many of the long “shots” possess an exquisite, almost painterly sense of color and refinement. The songs by Bryan Adams (used as mood pieces rather than parts of the story) and the background score of Hans Zimmer are also quite effective in helping the movie soar beyond its more earthbound narrative elements.
“Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” may, in the final analysis, appeal to family audiences in much the same way that “The Lion King” did. It lacks the emotional resonance of that picture, since while one may applaud in theory the refusal to anthropomorphize the horses by giving them speech, in practice the absence of voices to lend them a sense of humanity keeps them rather remote and chilly. The picture also lacks the strong, individualized villain that’s often the most memorable element in such tales. (In this, too, it’s reminiscent of “Bambi.”) Still, it embodies the same sense of wonder at, and respect for, the natural order of things that informed Disney’s 1994 blockbuster; and while it’s not likely to equal its success (or spawn a stage version), its technical brilliance goes far to compensate for its rather bland, preachy storyline.