- The Washington Times - Friday, May 24, 2002

The animated feature "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron" has a soporific effect, and I was grateful for the abbreviated running time. Plot-sustaining brainstorms clearly had fled from the galloping hoofs of screenwriter John Fusco at about the 70-minute mark. He repeats the chase sequence in which the title character, a laughing palomino, eludes pursuing daredevils from the U.S. cavalry across rugged landscapes simulating the American Southwest.
I was certain that some twist of fate would take defiant Spirit up north for the Battle of the Little Bighorn, possibly as the chosen mount of Sitting Bull, in order to snort contemptuously at Gen. George Armstrong Custer's men as they fell. The conflicts and loyalties in "Spirit," the first lamentably crackpot pretext from the DreamWorks animation shop, had been so clear-cut that I accepted the noble steed as the first counterculture poster horse. I was wrong about the Custer finale, but "Spirit" remains an allegorical pain.
Captured by cavalry troopers in the early going, Spirit escapes along with carefree Indian brave Little Creek (spoken by Daniel Studi). They bond in a setting that favors the topography of such national parks as Glacier and Yosemite, despite being juxtaposed for fictional convenience to the Monument Valley simulation occupied by the soldiers.
Fondly scrambling landscapes and blurring history, the filmmakers pretend that the wild horse was the indigenous critter of the American West. The timeline also suggests that the cavalry beat the Indians to wild-horse territory. Everyone who loves those history surveys that demonstrate the ignorance of American schoolchildren should take pleasure in the omissions and whoppers that saturate "Spirit."
The dauntless beast, captured a second time, is put on a truly remarkable railroad in the Southwest in order to be enslaved during the building of what looks like the first transcontinental line a stretch farther north. But it must be at least the second. Or how did Spirit get there? He manages to sabotage the infernal industrial machine, simultaneously causing the sort of forest fire that once was considered cause for alarm among forest creatures such as Bambi and his brethren. How times have changed.
Spirit, whose subconscious is narrated by Matt Damon, refers at one point to his sire: "Like my father before me " Ungenerously, may I point out that Bambi's dad at least made an impressive guest appearance. Spirit's remains a missing character throughout the chronicle. Maybe he was asking too much.
It's evidently asking too much for this wild-horse fable to make a little sense, except as a kind of lost allegory of 1968. The events of September 11 have made some of the ideology a little shortsighted. The Spirit who wrecks trains and starts fires could lend himself to exploitation as a Taliban poster horse.
Obviously, one is supposed to pretend that no such affinities should be apprehended in a cartoon that hopes to be a scenic and uplifting diversion for family audiences. The system of illusion breaks down whenever special-pleading story points or politically correct messages are allowed to distract from the scenery.
The illustrative strengths of the movie are confined to rendering natural landscapes in panoramic celluloid paintings and sustaining kinetic excitement in compositions of horses on the run. As camera subjects, horses remain far easier to appreciate in the flesh, as "The Black Stallion" and "Black Beauty" demonstrated with considerable emotional and poetic impact.
Feisty and indomitable Spirit does far too much laughing out of the wrong side of his face to suit me.

*1/2
TITLE: "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron"
RATING: G (Fleeting depictions of violent and catastrophic situations, including a train wreck and forest fire caused by the equine hero)
CREDITS: Directed by Kelly Asbury and Lorna Cook. Produced by Jeffrey Katzenberg and Mireille Soria. Screenplay by John Fusco. Production design by Kathy Altieri. Supervising animators: James Baxter, Fabio Lignini, William Salazar and Pres Romanillos. Horse Consultants: Dr. Deb Bennett and Dr. Stuart Sumida. Music by Hans Zimmer. Songs by Bryan Adams.
RUNNING TIME: 82 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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