[Screen It]

(2002) (voices of Matt Damon, Daniel Studi) (G)

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Animated Action/Adventure: A stallion encounters various perils in the American Old West after meeting humans for the first time.
As told by a narrator (voice of MATT DAMON) who voices the thoughts of the titular horse, we're taken back to the American Old West where Manifest Destiny is sending white men into regions previously inhabited only by Indians and animals. There, a foal is born that then grows up to be Spirit, the stallion leader of his herd.

He and the other horses live a free life, but that's about to change when he goes to investigate what turns out to be an overnight camp of some "two legged" humans. They quickly capture and return him to their fort where the stern Colonel (voice of JAMES CROMWELL) wants the stallion broken. When no one there can manage to do that, the Colonel orders that the horse be left out in the hot sun with no food or water for three days.

Eventually joined by Little Creek (voice of DANIEL STUDI), a captured Lakota Indian, Spirit finally seems broken, but then throws the Colonel who subsequently prepares to shoot the horse. Little Creek manages to free himself and rescue the horse, however, and the two race off to his tribal lands where Spirit meets a headstrong mare, Rain.

Spirit eventually learns that not all humans are bad, but does have more perilous encounters with various people who want to capture and use him as slave labor. From that point on, and with the aid of Little Creek, the horse tries to regain his freedom and return to his herd.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
Unlike TV shows that are popped out week after week, it takes a long time for movies to make it from initial concept to finished product. Accordingly, it's always a gamble - and usually an expensive one at that - to undertake such an endeavor. That's particularly true when external forces - other similar films or public opinion and/or desires - could influence viewer and critical reaction to one's effort.

Such could be the case with "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron" and the state of traditional, hand-drawn animated films in general. Put into production before public sentiment apparently switched over to computer-generated kids films and made pictures like "Shrek," "Monsters, Inc." and "Ice Age" hits and left others such as "Atlantis" and "Titan A.E." as disappointments and outright failures respectively, this film's fate is impossible to predict.

Even so, I'm sure the bean counters at DreamWorks are crossing their fingers and performing any number of supposititious rituals in hopes that their latest animated offering will buck the recent trend in what's viewed as favorable.

Possibly complicating matters for them in terms of their film playing to kids, however, is that fact that none of the featured animals speak outright, although we hear the retrospective thoughts of the titular steed as voiced by Matt Damon ("The Bourne Identity," "All the Pretty Horses"). In addition, there's only one brief kid sighting and no sidekicks, while very little humor is present, particularly of the zany kind that's often presumed to be what kids want to see.

Of course, not all kids films have to posses all or any of that, and much like other recent animated fare, this one isn't completely hand drawn as the backgrounds have received the computerized treatment. In fact, this is probably the most visually appealing "traditional" animated film to be released in some time. While the characters lack the depth found in computer-animated flicks (as far as appearing three-dimensional), the film is a sumptuous piece of eye candy for kids and adults alike.

Pretty pictures alone obviously don't make for great or even good films, however, and so this one sets out to tell the tale of a horse and his varying and occasionally perilous encounters with the white man and his expansionistic behavior stemming from Manifest Destiny.

As helmed by Kelly Asbury and Lorna Cook - who make their collective directorial debut and work from a script by John Fusco ("Thunderheart," "Young Guns") - the adventure story is rather simple and straightforward - all the better to play to the young target audience - and bears a striking resemblance to "Running Free." In that live-action animal flick from 2000, a young horse - given thought-based narration by Lukas Haas - suddenly finds himself alone in an abandoned African railroad town and then has various adventurous encounters as he tries to make his way through the countryside.

Few people, let alone kids, saw that film as such live-action efforts played sans comedy or talking animals don't greatly appeal to younger or older viewers in this day and age. This effort, however, benefits from being animated - being more visually appealing to the youngster and allowing the horses to possess some human characteristics and facial expressions - as well as possessing a far better sense of straightforward action and adventure.

In fact, in the truest sense of what a movie is - namely, a story told with pictures - this is a near perfect example of such storytelling. Since so little dialogue exists anyway, one could easily turn off the sound and still follow and be entertained by the story and its various adventurous moments. In that sense, the film, or at least parts of it, come off as something of an Indiana Jones flick with an animated horse taking over Mr. Ford's part.

Turning off the sound would also deliver the benefit of not having to listen to the many songs so forcefully sung by Brian Adams. While the score by composer Hans Zimmer ("Black Hawk Down," "Pearl Harbor") is certainly pleasing to the ear, Adams' various ditties are far too obvious and on the nose in reinforcing any given scene's emotional sense.

Many kids obviously won't pay attention to or understand the lyrics, while most adults will find them superfluous and redundant. While Adams's fans will probably enjoy hearing the singer making something of a comeback with his effort here, the songs easily could have been jettisoned with no ill effect (although it would have been harder to promote and sell the accompanying soundtrack without a recognizable name attached to it).

As far as the rest of the audio is concerned, Damon lends a recognizable voice to the horse's thoughts, while the likes of James Cromwell ("The Sum of All Fears," "Babe") and Daniel Studi (the TV movie "Crazy Horse") deliver solid vocal work in their supporting roles.

Other than the fact that it might be too politically correct for some viewers - all of the white men are villains of one sort or another - and a late in the game forest fire spreads far too rapidly to be realistic - the film succeeds in what it's trying to achieve and that's being an effective action adventure flick where the hero is an animated steed.

Entertaining for kids (as long as it doesn't scare them) and thankfully short for adults, the film is by no means an animated classic, but it delivers the goods and thus rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed May 11, 2002 / Posted May 24, 2002

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