Review by Kim Hollis
May 13, 2002
If you're going into Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron expecting a "nice horsey movie", get ready for disappointment. Though it is a G-rated children's film, Spirit is layered a bit more deeply and is, at times, brutally honest about some of the uglier days of North American history.
On its surface, Spirit is the story of a stallion that is the leader of its herd until he is captured by military men when he tries to protect his own. Since the movie is a scant 75 minutes long, revealing much more would require me to get pretty heavily into serious spoilers, but let's just say that there are some cute moments, some romance, some funny bits that children in particular seemed to enjoy, some scary sequences and, of course, a happy ending.
After the wild successes for CGI animation over the past year, it might seem that Spirit is an anticlimactic throwback to traditional animation; however, for the themes, Old West settings and the story being presented, CGI would have been highly inappropriate. Though Monsters, Inc., Shrek and Ice Age were all impressive in their own rights (Ice Age being by far the most primitive of the three), the fluidity and range-of-motion achieved in Spirit would not have been viable except through the use of traditional animation. Some CGI was used in the rendering of backgrounds and it is beautifully done, particularly a landscape that makes use of the rapids in a rushing river. In general, both the scenery and the characters are charmingly illustrated.
Unlike all of the animal movies that have preceded it, the horses in Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron do not speak to one another. They convey their emotions through whinnies, nudges and facial expressions, the subtlety of which are impressive. Since it is vital to the story to understand Spirit's moods and reactions, the tale is narrated in the past tense through the stallion's point of view, with Matt Damon providing the verbal exposition at pertinent moments. His youthful and exuberant voice worked well for the character.
Other than Spirit/Damon, there are really only two characters with important speaking roles in the film. James Cromwell supplied the voice of Spirit's Cavalry colonel nemesis, while Daniel Studi played the part of a Lakota named Little Creek, and though both men had small roles to play, they were important to the realism evoked by their respective characters.
With very little talking going on throughout the remainder of the film to move the story along, music plays a fundamental part in explaining the plot and stirring the proper mood. Unfortunately, this is one of the few areas in which I felt the movie was lacking. Bryan Adams wrote and performed the original songs for the film, and basically, they sounded like...Bryan Adams songs. They weren't particularly special or interesting and probably would have been better handled by a less pop-oriented artist. That said, Hans Zimmer's score was also well below his usual standard, with the music feeling downright New Age-y at times. I generally quite enjoy Zimmer as a composer (with his score for The Lion King being a favorite), so this was a big disappointment for me on a personal level.
A couple of other important points should be made as far as the content of Spirit goes. If you are a Caucasian North American and you want to feel good about yourself and what your ancestors did in this country's history, this movie is not going to give you that. At all. For a children's film, Spirit is unabashedly straightforward in its depiction of the Cavalry's treatment of the Lakota tribe. This is not your grandfather's cowboys-and-Indians movie. The soldiers use derogatory terms to refer to the Lakota but at the same time, there is never any doubt about who is good and who is bad here, as Little Creek is heroic, trustworthy, and admirable. I would definitely recommend discussing this aspect of the story with your child after the movie so that they understand the context.
Even with that clear division, one of the things I admired most about this film is that the primary villain isn't entirely one-dimensional. Though his screen time is somewhat limited, we see numerous facets to his character, and while it's simple in movies of this type to take the easy way out and make your bad guy as reprehensible as possible, the writers took a bit of a calculated risk in offering him some redemption.
Something else that may disturb certain moviegoers is the undeniable presence of animal cruelty. In order to put Spirit in jeopardy and more effectively show his conflict, the film shows his Cavalry captors mistreating him as well as the other horses in their possession. Again, though, you're certainly never led to believe that this is a good thing and in fact, this aspect of the film serves to make the stories of Spirit and Little Creek somewhat parallel. Both the horse and the man prize freedom highly and will fight valiantly to hold on to what they hold dear. This symbolism is carried through in a variety of other ways, including the use of color and song, connecting Spirit and his Lakota friend on a more transcendent level.
I do have a quick aside on two of the sequences from the film that are noteworthy in an odd way. At two points during the movie, I found myself strongly reminded of Harrison Ford's The Fugitive, and in one of these scenes, the resemblance was so strong that I giggled out loud (at what was probably an inappropriate moment). I'm fairly certain that the similarities aren't intentional (though it's possible the writers/directors were influenced by the earlier live-action film), but they are incongruous moments indeed.
Nonetheless, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron is a delightful children's film that goes a bit deeper thematically than the typical "beauty is only skin deep" or "anything is possible with good friends." Though friendship is key to the story, so are loyalty, liberty, compassion, and empathy. The best compliment I can give the film is that despite the lack of extensive dialogue or funny songs, the children at my screening seemed constantly captivated, asking questions and laughing at all the right moments. When the credits started rolling, the little boy behind me said to his mother, "That was SO good!!," in a breathless tone and the audience chatter that followed was audible and animated. I must say the response was deserved, and recommend the film as an intelligent one that parents can enjoy and discuss with their children.