Well we’re at the penultimate review and we are delving into the world where traditional
and computer animation start to collide with Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. Though Jeffery Katzenberg called this, stupidly in my opinion, “tradigital animation”, the idea of blending the two styles together is not unheard of, being used in Don Bluth’s somewhat forgotten film Titan A.E and the much more successful and fondly remembered Disney film Tarzan.
But wait, isn’t this mean to be about traditionally animated films? Yes. Then why are you reviewing a film that incorporates both traditional and computer animation? Isn’t that against your rules? Well I’m glad you brought that up voice from the back of my deranged mind.
Yes this film has a lot of computer animated elements, but it is incorporated so that tries to look completely traditionally animated which, to its credit, it does well. Also all the characters are traditionally animated so I consider it fair game. OK, onto the obligatory overview!
The film start with a narration from Spirit (Matt Damon) about the Wild West being a time when wild horses ran free and yet has never been told from the perspective of a horse. We then see a dun Kiger Mustang giving birth to our protagonist, Spirit. As Spirit grows up, with a few scenes of young mischievous scenes of Spirit thrown in to show his growth, he becomes leader of the herd.
But one night, Spirit spots an unusual light in the distance and goes to investigate, finding some horses restrained by strange creatures he calls “two-leggeds”. Waking up the sleeping two-leggeds, Spirit frees the restrained horses and returns to camp. However he soon discovers he’s led to two-leggeds right to the herd. In an attempt to lead them away, Spirit is captured and brought to a US Cavalry army barracks.
Seeing the horses being used as slaves by the two-leggeds, Spirit resolves to get away as soon as possible and return to the herd. But an army officer simply referred to as The Colonel (James Cromwell) has other ideas, wanting to break him. But then a Native American, Little Creek (Daniel Studi), is brought in and tied to a post like Spirit is. And thus the tale, with many other people and horses, begins.
What I must give this film credit for, before we can even get into anything else, is the fact that none of the animals talk. Aside from Matt Damon’s occasional narration for Spirit all the animals retain the noises they would usually make in nature. To do that is fantastic as DreamWorks could have gone down to far too often used gimmick of having the animals talk and that is a very precarious route to walk down as there are too many cases of voice-overs that make at least one animal “the quirky one” e.g.: Twitchy from Hoodwinked.
But that’s not to say that there isn’t any humour in this film as it doesn’t take itself too seriously all the time. Young Spirit certainly has a lot of funny parts, and that doesn’t necessarily go away later on, but it’s not tears-in-your-eyes comedy. It’ll give the odd joke now and again, but it will not exert itself in trying to make you find time to breathe. It gives you a joke, and then some more of the story, then another funny bit later on without it becoming the film’s core mechanic and that’s always good.
The horses brilliantly portray human emotions as it’s all done through facial and body language and the occasional whinny. To portray complex emotions without the power of speech can be difficult to do at times, but Spirit pulls it off with great aplomb, allowing you to see their entire thought process play out on their faces which is brilliant, even allowing for entire relationships to build (massive hint to part of film I won’t be commenting on for fear of spoiling), keeping Matt Damon’s so-so narrating to a minimum.
With that said about Matt Damon, let’s move on to the admittedly limited voice cast. The two of any real note are James Cromwell and Daniel Studi and to their credit they embody their parts. Cromwell, who has only ever done this one animated movie in his long and extensive career, really brings The Colonel alive as a harsh, non-nonsense authoritarian. As figure of pure repression for Spirit to fight against, you could have not done any better than Cromwell, allowing children everywhere to finally forget Cromwell’s immortal lines of “That’ll do, Pig, that’ll do.” Really, despite his recognisable voice, I did not click that it was Cromwell, I just saw him wholly as The Colonel.
Studi, who’s only other acting credits are from 1996’s Crazy Horse as Masu and 2004’s A Thief of Time (in which he an uncredited man beside a road), paling in comparison to his much more famous father Wes Studi (Dances with Wolves, The Last of the Mohicans and Avatar), does a respectable job. He gives Little Creek a playfulness and likability that we want from a side character without going overboard. Little Creek, like The Colonel, also wants to ride Spirit but it is his methods and general good guy persona that make you Little Creek not so much as an oppressor than The Colonel is portrayed as.
But now let’s get onto the animation. I have to admit that, although there are some scenes where the computer animation looks dated, generally it fits in well with the traditional look the main characters are designed with. But the traditional animation is where the films not only hold its own, but excels. Considering that Spirit had to contend with the Disney’s hit Lilo & Stitch as well as it not so much a hit but still a good film Treasure Planet in the same year Spirit, in terms of animation, doesn’t look out of place in terms of quality. Not only does it keep that same DreamWorks style that The Prince of Egypt and The Road to El Dorado had, but it also just looks brilliant compared to the established animators that are Disney, even if they had just come out of their Renaissance period.
One quick thing I must also praise the film on is the music. Now unlike The Prince of Egypt, The Road to El Dorado and Joseph: King of Dreams, there are no songs sung by the cast, not even by the humans. It is all done by Bryan Adams and does a rather good job, with I’m Free and Get Off My Back being some of the catchiest, and best, songs in the film. While Bryan Adams may or may not be to everyone’s tastes, the songs fit in very well with the overall tone of the film and Hans Zimmer, as ever, providing equally good instrumental sections to give the film that extra bit of tone.
But now we come to the fun bit, the controversy. Spirit was criticised for being revisionist in the Native American’s favour and being perceived as modernity and white settlers were bad and that you should seek freedom like Spirit does. While a valid criticism, it somehow comes off a little petty as Western films in the past have by no means always portrayed the Native Americans as sympathetically as Spirit has.
But then again Spirit does not completely side with the Native American cause either. Spirit wants complete freedom, form both the white settler Americans and the Native Americans and, while giving the Native Americans a more positive slant than the White Settler Americans, it is more done so to progress the plot rather than to say “All White Americans are bad”. Indeed, by the end of the film we can see that the White Settler Americans, with one in particular, do come to terms with Spirit and respect him. They are no longer portrayed as the villains, rather the worthy opponent.
And this is why Spirit is such a great film as it treats the West in such a grown up manner, yet still makes it accessible to children. It isn’t all about fighting the Injuns or shootouts at high noon, but a portrayal of horse that sees both sides of America in a time when the USA was expanding and the Native American nations were falling and how we all strive for our own individual freedoms.
Spirit is an excellent film that has become severely underrated and unduly forgotten, due to its opening alongside Spider-Man, Insomnia and the frankly terrible Star Wars II – Attack of the Clones. It has just become my favourite watch of the traditionally animated DreamWorks films thus far, edging The Road to El Dorado out and leaving Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas with its work cut out for it. It’s animation is gorgeous, its story is simple and gripping, it defies the convention of having talking animals and leaves you feeling ever so satisfied at the end. No wonder this was nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar, yet it leads me to wonder. It didn’t turn a huge profit, but was still successful considering, what did Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas do to end the traditionally animated era?
Thanks you for reading my review! I swear we’ll get to the end of this series soon, just one more film and then I may do a final summary of DreamWorks traditional years and see how they stack. As always, if you liked what you have read here, please leave a like; comment if you want a discussion or tell me how good/bad my review is. Also, if you want more from The Chronic Chronicler, don’t forget to follow me here on WordPress as well as one Twitter and Facebook to keep yourself updated. Thanks for reading!