Reviewed by: Douglas Downs
I’ll admit it—I love history. I’ve often wondered what our present period of time will look like to future generations. Yesterday I met the mother of a baby that was born on 9/11. Her son was the only birth in our local hospital that tragic day. (He’s already been the focus of several news features.) What will his life be like? How will historians paint our present? DreamWorks’ animated feature Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron brings such thoughts to mind due to its historical setting. Just like the westerns of years past, this release has the cinematic power of filling in the past with color and imagination.
Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron is a politically correct mixed blessing. The story is a commentary on the conflict that exists between progress and freedom. We witness those struggles almost daily. For example, while we enjoy the freedom to buy and own land, you soon learn that with numerous building codes in existence you don’t really have the luxury of doing anything you wish. The villain in this modern parable for children is “Progress”.
Historically, our national progress has always impacted land and people. The story does hide the tragic plight of the Native American Indians, but our focus and pity is on the freedom of a single mustang. It will be difficult for children to sort out the values of the U.S. Cavalry, the American Railroad, and the Native American Indians. These issues were no different for the Baby Boomers out there that grew up watching the old westerns. The only consolation is that this time (like the movie “Dancing With Wolves”) the Indians are not the villains.
I did enjoy the animation used in “Spirit”. The wide Cinemascope ratio format was a nonverbal commentary on the progress of this art form. This film uses very detailed computer generated scenes that are for the most part geographically accurate renderings of the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Monument Valley. The visual experience truly can make you forget that you are watching a “cartoon”. I love these dying labors of dedication, but I’m afraid the wheels of digital progress will soon crush corporate affordability.
The score from Bryan Adams and composer Hans Zimmer is fantastic. Zimmer brings to this film a musical depth that many sugar-coated films of the same genre lack. (I’ll be enjoying my very own copy of this soundtrack once it is released.) I admire the courage of co-directors Kelly Asbury and Lorna Cook to produce an animated masterpiece without the cutesy talking animals. The horses used sounds and body language to communicate and our children get to use their imaginations. Matt Damon as the narrative thoughts of our horse, Spirit, was nothing short of ingenious. The other voice cast talent was also good, but Matt’s voice especially was a believable vehicle to the entire presentation.
Our story centers around a mustang named Spirit in 18th century America. We witness his life right from birth. Spirit grows up and becomes the leader of a group of untamed horses. (Trivia: DreamWorks actually bought a Kiger Stallion named “Donner” for $50,000 as the live model for Spirit.) Along the way, Spirit is captured by the U.S. Cavalry who attempts to break him in. The Colonel (voiced by “Babe”’s gentle farmer James Cromwell) is very determined and persistent in this process. The Cavalry also have captured a Lakota brave named Little Creek (voice by Daniel Studi). Spirit is used by Little Creek to escape captivity. The parable begins to unfold the struggle that Spirit and Little Creek both must endure to enjoy freedom.
The story line is often naive and presents the traditional romantic view of the Wild West. I do challenge parents to use this film as a springboard to explore American history at their local library. Progress has always come with a price. 1,500,000 horses were killed during the Civil War, but horses enlisted in the Pony Express brought our country together.
It’s easy to criticize some aspects of progress while reaching for the TV remote. (We often fight developments in our churches on Sunday while buying a new DVD player on Monday.) Overall, I recommend “Spirit” as an excellent example of a fading art form. I sometimes struggle over the historical implications of yet another generation of children being reared without an accurate picture of American history. I’ll work hard to provide review information… parents please do your job of “teaching our children well.”