After a beautifully rendered opening passage where an eagle flies over a breathtaking expanse of the American West, DreamWorks’ latest animated feature, the horse opera “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron,” wastes no time in daring viewers over the age of five to not roll their eyes. When Matt Damon chimes in with the first passage of insipid narration — “They say history rides on the saddle of a horse, but it comes from the heart of one”–the film goes into a crashing nosedive, plummeting to the deepest reaches of movie hell a mere moment later, when the titular horse is born as a treacly Bryan Adams power ballad blares, “Here I am!”
If there were ever a film that makes one clamor for a renaissance of the silent film era, “Spirit” is it. The film is clearly at its best when directors Kelly Asbury and Lorna Cook are content to simply let the audience bask in its nonverbal pleasures. As studios increasingly turn their attention to producing entirely computer-generated animated features, “Spirit” is a stunning example of the irreplaceable splendors of traditional hand-drawn feature animation. Per what has become the norm, there is some obvious computer assistance in the creation of certain three-dimensional objects, but the most indelible sights emerge from the pen and brush of the artists and animators–not just the gorgeously drawn landscapes, but also the remarkable expressiveness of the distinctly equine faces. To borrow the old cliché, actions do speak louder than words in “Spirit,” and said actions are nicely underscored by Hans Zimmer’s majestic score.
If only Asbury and Cook had more faith in viewers, particularly those target younger ones, to understand the story of “Spirit” with only the sparse dialogue uttered by the human characters. The story itself is, indeed, sparse. Gallant mustang Spirit is taken away from his family by a Calvalry Colonel (voiced by James Cromwell), but he eventually escapes with the help of an also-imprisoned Lakota named Little Creek (Daniel Studi). The well-meaning Little Creek makes Spirit part of his family, but the horse yearns to be free to rejoin his family. There’s nothing in the story that doesn’t come clearly enough through the visuals, score, and occasional spoken lines, but in keeping with Hollywood’s ongoing efforts to play to the lowest common denominator, just when one is wrapped up in the immersive sweep, the moment is killed by either Damon’s clanging and totally unnecessary horse’s-view narration, or the mega-ton sledgehammer is that is Adams’ even more unsubtle song score (didn’t anyone learn from “Tarzan” that these non-character-sung song scores by aging pop/adult contemporary artists just don’t work?). There are genuine moments of beauty in “Spirit”–visually and emotionally speaking–but ultimately they aren’t worth the price of suffering through the extraneous material that too often sullies the picture.