Can't break Spirit, but story bows

May 24, 2002|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Cross Walt Disney with John Ford and you'd get Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. Except those two master filmmakers would come up with a far more engaging film than this gorgeous, but otherwise nondescript, horse opera.

DreamWorks has positioned Spirit as the film that will save traditional animation as we've known it - no small task, given that all the great crowd-pleasers of the past six years or so (Toy Story, Shrek, Monsters Inc., etc.) have relied on computer animation to tell their stories, while films drawn by hand (Hercules, Atlantis, El Dorado) have done only so-so at the box office.

Producer Jeffrey Katzenberg's order to his filmmakers was to marry traditional and computer animation, creating a hybrid that boasts the best of both forms. Spirit accomplishes that beautifully: The traditional, hand-drawn people and animals are more expressive than what any machine can yet create, while the computer-generated backgrounds ripple and wave and blow with a seamless grace that even the best animators have rarely accomplished.

Animating water, for instance, has been the bane of animators since Felix the Cat was still a kitten; here, the effect is almost photographic in its stately beauty. And the film's opening scene, in which a lone eagle takes viewers on a tour of the West's most awe-inspiring vistas - sort of like a "greatest hits" tour of our national parks - is breathtaking. Combining a hand-drawn eagle with computer-generated landscapes, the sequence shows how seamlessly the two methods can be merged, and suggests all sorts of bold futures yet to come.

Unfortunately, Spirit's story doesn't quite live up to its animation. Its hero is a wild stallion running free over the untamed West, galloping and snorting and doing all those things that wild horses do. But then civilization shows up, in the form of the encroaching white man, his massive locomotives and his disdain for all things that cannot be controlled (at least that's what it says here).

Spirit, who's pretty much the stud of his herd, finds all this newness pretty fascinating, and so of course he ventures closer for a look. Big mistake: Soon he's roped and captured and under the thumb of an evil Army captain (voiced by James Cromwell) determined to break him.

But this wild horse will not be broken. Soon, with the help of Little Creek, a captured Indian brave (voiced by Daniel Studi), he escapes. But will he escape for long? If our history books are any indication, probably not. But Spirit wasn't named that for nothing; he's not giving up.

Spirit is awash in wonder, from Matt Damon's narration to the unwavering nobility of Little Creek and his Native American brothers and sisters. It's a vision of the West that Hollywood has embraced ever since Dances With Wolves - a wondrous place until Western Civilization came and did its dirty work.

Not that there's anything wrong with that particular message; man befouling nature has been a theme of animated movies ever since audiences started sobbing at the death of Bambi's mother. But Spirit doesn't move that idea along much and lacks the memorable imagery that turns a film into a classic.

Moreover, the film, if anything, looks too real. The DreamWorks folks opted against having any of the animals talk - a good decision for verisimilitude, a bad decision for audiences looking to identify with the central character. When a horse looks like a horse and moves like a horse and sounds like a horse, it ought to act like a horse. But Spirit acts like a superhorse, leaping canyons, upending train engines and doing all sorts of ingenious damage to those nasty men invading his turf. Animators for decades have given animals the power of speech not simply to make them cute, but rather to make them more human, more like one of us. Spirit lacks that essential emotional resonance, and suffers because of it.

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