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Dustin Putman

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Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002)
2 Stars

Directed by Kelly Asbury, Lorna Cook
Cast Voices: Matt Damon, James Cromwell, Daniel Studi
2002 – minutes
Rated: Rated G (general audiences).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, May 24, 2002.

"Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron," Dreamworks' animated follow-up to 2001's enormously entertaining "Shrek," is a very different kind of family film that, nonetheless, should please both child and adult viewers. Whereas "Shrek" was a pure fantasy with imagination, humor, and wit to spare, "Spirit" is notably more serious and ruminative in tone.

Gorgeously blending two-dimensional and computer-generated animation, the film tells a relatively down-to-earth story set in the pastoral settings of the West about a resourceful horse's continued attempts to have a free life. That horse, called Spirit, is followed from his birth as a mustang colt to his rise as a majestic stallion. When he is abruptly captured by a group of nasty cowboys determined to trap and train him, Spirit wonders if he will ever see his beloved family again. Befriending a good, peaceful Indian named Little Creek (voiced by Daniel Studi), the two of them manage to escape the white men's evil clutches, but are persistently followed by a cavalry colonel (voiced by James Cromwell).

Lending to the realistic, expressive portrayal of the horse characters is Screenwriter John Fusco and directors Kelly Asbury and Lorna Cook's courageous decision to not have them talk like humans. Aside from sparse voice-over narration from Matt Damon, as Spirit, the horses are beautifully brought to humanistic life through the true motions and sounds of the equines. Eyes are, indeed, the key to the souls of Spirit, his mother, Rain (the female horse he grows to care for), and the rest of his friends, as what they say is far more deeply emotional and expansive than any word could possibly be.

While Spirit is a genuine hero worth caring about in the animated movie tradition, and the journey he goes on is an enjoyable one, individual moments in "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron" are better than its whole. At 81 minutes, the picture simply seems too brief and slight to have the type of everlasting impression it yearns for. The soundtrack, populated with original songs from pop crooner Bryan Adams, is a strictly hit-and-miss affair. A couple of the songs (the faster paced ones) were nicely sung, orchestrated, and meshed well with the on-screen action. The ballads, on the other hand, were too obvious and sticky for their own good—generic songs that anyone could have sung and it wouldn't have made a bit of difference.

Intermingling with its lesser parts are a number of remarkably exciting action scenes and quite a few quieter moments that successfully garnered true poignancy from its situations. One scene, in which a train wreck gets out of control and chases Spirit down a hill and into a village, causing mass destruction in its wake, jumps off the screen with vibrant animation and tight editing. A desperate jump from one cliff to another also manages to be both suspenseful and invigorating at the same time. And the final five minutes do a lovely job of wrapping the story of Spirit up.

Despite its mature tone and impressive animation, "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron" could have been better. With more development on its screenplay level, and less reliance on Bryan Adams' mediocre warbling, the film could have certainly gone down as a new animated classic. As is, the movie's overall impact pales when sat alongside the likes of "Shrek," "Monsters, Inc.," or "Toy Story 2"—family features that had more substance, and more creativity. Still, one cannot accuse "Spirit" of not having one key ingredient: heart.

Special Note: Whoever's idea it was to have Michelle Branch's excellent "You Set Me Free" play during all of the trailers and promotional ads, and then not fit it into the film itself, made a very big mistake. That song, far superior to any of Bryan Adams' efforts, fully underscores what it might feel like to be a horse, and it is sadly missing from the finished product.

©2002 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman