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Reviews: "Spirit" the superhorse

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  • Robert V. Schmidt
    From the LA Times, 5/24/02: ***** MOVIE REVIEW At Its Best, Spirit Takes Flight Though the way-out-West story is predictable, the animation in this equine
    Message 1 of 1 , May 28, 2002
      From the LA Times, 5/24/02:

      *****

      MOVIE REVIEW
      At Its Best, 'Spirit' Takes Flight

      Though the way-out-West story is predictable, the animation in this equine
      epic unfolds in a breathtaking sweep.

      By KENNETH TURAN, TIMES STAFF WRITER

      "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron" is a film that manages to soar, but only
      when its horses do. Under ordinary circumstances, of course, horses are not
      known to fly, and they don't really here. But when this new animated
      feature from DreamWorks is at its best, they definitely seem to.

      The story of a feisty mustang of the Old West who absolutely, positively
      will not be broken, "Spirit" is being touted for the way it combines
      traditional two-dimensional and computer-generated three-dimensional
      animation and for being the anti-Mr. Ed. This is a horse that won't talk,
      so don't ask him, thank you very much.

      Of course, Hollywood being Hollywood, "Spirit" hedges its bets by giving
      the animal voice-over narration (read by Matt Damon) that sounds like this
      is one horse who found time to take creative writing courses. Also filling
      in the gaps are a musical's worth of songs by Bryan Adams, who collaborates
      with composer Hans Zimmer to attach a lyric to almost every mood change
      Spirit faces, from his birth ("Here I am, this is me") to later
      homesickness and separation ("Wherever I wander, here I will always
      return"). That's more communicating than some people do. Speaking or
      silent, horses apparently have a reputation for being difficult to animate,
      and co-directors Kelly Asbury and Lorna Cook have taken pains to be as
      authentic as possible. Impressive horse consultants were hired, and what's
      described as "a wide variety of neighs, whinnies and other horse sounds"
      were carefully recorded.

      That determination to be true to what horses went through way out West
      makes parts of the production problematic for the youngest viewers. However
      authentic, it's unpleasant to see Spirit starved and subjected to sadistic
      riding crops and spurs. Although the horse gives as good as he gets when
      he's captured by the U.S. Cavalry, he's trussed up in so many constraining
      ropes and harnesses that you feel like you're watching "Stallions in
      Bondage" instead of a friendly animated cartoon.

      "Spirit" was likely conceived by writer John Fusco in part as a love note
      to the West before we covered it with parking lots, snowmobiles and SUVs,
      an attempt to produce a history of the region written not "from the saddle
      of a horse" but "from the heart of one." It's at its best during its purely
      visual moments, like the three-minute opening sequence, which is so complex
      that it was nine months in the design stage alone.

      Following an eagle in swooping flight, the camera, in what looks like one
      long, continuous shot but isn't, moves all in a rush through the canyons of
      our collective imagination, thrusting us into a constantly changing
      landscape that includes the Grand Canyon and other frontier landmarks. It
      unfolds in such a breathless rush that you can feel how exciting it must
      have been to animate.

      Inevitably, the story parts of "Spirit" are more ordinary and predictable.
      We see the horse being born and watch him "grow from colt to stallion,
      racing with the eagle, soaring with the wind." Then, with a face that makes
      him resemble an equine John Travolta, he becomes leader of the Cimarron
      herd and learns that "with that honor comes responsibility."

      What also comes with maturity are encounters with unpleasant white men,
      intent on subjugating the West in general and Spirit in particular. They're
      epitomized by the Colonel (James Cromwell), who serves as bondage master
      during Spirit's brief stay with the cavalry. If the white people cause
      every bit of the trouble in this film, the Native Americans, living as it
      happens in perfect harmony with the natural world, are just as
      schematically presented as uniformly virtuous. This is especially true of
      the young Lakota brave Little Creek (Daniel Studi), who hooks up with
      Spirit and happens to possess a fetching paint mare named Rain that catches
      Spirit's eye.

      Despite its good intentions, "Spirit" is more self-conscious and
      uninspiring from a dramatic point of view than one might have wished.
      Still, whenever it threatens to get bogged down in earnest dramaturgy, a
      stirring visual sequence like a surge through swirling rapids or a leap
      from pinnacle to pinnacle rouses us. If horses could fly, this is surely
      what they'd look like.

      MPAA rating: G. Times guidelines: Some mildly disturbing scenes of cruelty
      to animals.

      'Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron'

      Matt Damon...Spirit

      James Cromwell...The Colonel

      Daniel Studi...Little Creek

      Chopper Bernet...Sgt. Adams

      Presented and released by DreamWorks Pictures. Directors Kelly Asbury,
      Lorna Cook. Producers Mireille Soria, Jeffrey Katzenberg. Screenplay John
      Fusco. Supervising editor Nick Fletcher. Music Hans Zimmer. Songs Bryan
      Adams. Production designer Kathy Altieri. Art directors Luc Desmarchelier,
      Ronald W. Lukas. Animation supervisor Kristof Serrand. Running time: 1
      hour, 22 minutes.

      In general release.

      *****

      From the Baltimore Sun

      Can't break Spirit, but story bows
      By 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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