Review: “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron”

Last year I was one of the lucky ones to see “Shrek” quite early and be one of the first reviewers to talk about it online. In 90 minutes Dreamworks conquered the CG animated genre, flattening its previous work with “Antz” and at least equalling (and in some cases outpacing) the brilliant work that Pixar has churned out four times now without fault.

“Shrek” worked by combining a simple story which kids would like, impressive CG animation, and most of all a real adult sense of subtext and humour whether it be jabs at Disney to sheer slapstick or off-the-wall moments (eg. “Do you know the Muffin Man?”). It was a real all-round piece of entertainment which, whilst predictable and a little lacking in story, nevertheless had a real heart and soul that Disney’s woeful Summer 2001 offering “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” sorely missed. Now comes “Spirit”, and like “Atlantis”, this is a film that proves traditional animation is sadly on the way out 0 but at least Atlantis had a real sense of adventure.

Don’t misunderstand me – “Spirit” is visually interesting, especially in its opening scenes. The animators have done an excellent job and flawlessly combined CG and traditional animation more seamlessly than ever before in some sequences. However like most animated films of late, the script and story are where its very much lacking.

A tale about a horse in the Old West is a decent idea, and the fact that none of the beasts talk looks like the studio is striving for realism, yet the amount of cheesy nostril flaring and eyebrow waving makes WWF wrestler The Rock look Shakesperian. At many points this is painfully politically correct and so emotionally manipulative (its like Spielberg without the subtlety or interesting story) that while the under 7’s in the audiences will be bawling or scared, adults will be groaning and only finding fun in spotting the recycled storylines from other and much better animated epics.

Matt Damon proves a decent, albeit uninspiring narrator whose stuck with some real hammy dialogue (“my heart galloped through the skies that night”) and James Cromwell leaves a decent but underwheling impression as the film’s rather flat baddie – Daniel Studi comes out best as the Native American man who becomes ‘close to the horse’ even if the white folk treat him way better than the real life counterparts (in any semblance of reality, Spirit’s wild nature would’ve been put down with a bullet 20 minutes into the runtime).

In fact its the opening 12 minutes or so, the scenes in which the humans stay out of proceedings and we see a young playful Spirit hoping around the fields that are very engaging but effectively hide the sheer ordinariness to come (for example the “Thelma & Louise” inspired ending). Bryan Adams’ songs aren’t as bad as I expected but there are just too many – a little variety could’ve gone a long way.

This is definitely a film for the littlies, though a very select group as there’s some dark stuff in here I’m surprised got a G rating (there’s more than one tearjerker moment in this). Older audiences may find themselves clicking at times to some of the grander but unexplored ideas of the story, but any self-respecting teenager (or even 8-9 year old) will smartly avoid this like the plague. With ticket prices today and this film running at a minuscule 73 minutes, the value is simply not there.

‘Spirit’ isn’t so bad that you’ll want to slip a replica of the title character’s head in between Jeffrey Katzenberg’s sheets (makes one wonder what else is under there), but unless you’ve got kids you’ll probably be putting in calls to the nearest glue factory. Spirit has its moments but despite the cinematic visuals its better left for video, here’s hoping ‘Lilo’ proves better.