SPIRIT: STALLION OF THE CIMARRON, the new animated feature from Dreamworks, is an honest-to-God western. Some of you may be forgiven for thinking it was just a horse movie, a distinct and definable genre in its own right (e.g. MY FRIEND FLICKA), but I assure you this is a real, bonafide western, complete with cavalry, Indians, Monument Valley and the building of the transcontinental railroad. It's a familiar saga (to western fans) but told here from the point-of-view of a wild horse. It just may be the only western that children in today's audience will get to see on the big screen. (And it's perfectly suitable for even the smallest children.)
The movie has three selling points for people who are appalled at how childish and inane animated features in the U.S. have been over the last decade or so:
1) It's got a serious story. 2) The horses don't talk. 3) The horses don't sing.
The latter two functions are served by Spirit's first-person narration, voiced by Matt Damon and told in the past tense as a reminiscence, and several songs on the soundtrack written and performed by Bryan Adams. Neither of these elements were particularly necessary and the movie would have been better without them, although they aren't fatal. Hans Zimmer's excellent music score does a far more effective job in conveying, in dramatic and emotional terms, what the songs belabor. But, thankfully, aside from Damon, there are no other celebrity voices.
The other big selling point is the artwork. The background art and western landscapes are stunning and offer a mix of painted scenes and computer-created scenery, although everything seems computer enhanced in one way or another. Most importantly, the film gives us a chance to savor the backgrounds. The characters don't zip around in constant frenetic motion the way they do in Disney movies. Although there are several chase scenes, the characters are just as likely to pause and connect with each other in movements reflecting naturalistic behavior. There are moments of gentleness, tenderness, curiosity, and discovery, so we get to see the space the characters are in and get to connect with it ourselves. There's a real palpable sense of environment and geography, of time and place, something rarely found in American animated features.
The character design is also well-done. The human characters all have solid, expressive, recognizable faces, strongly differentiated from each other. The horses are well designed also, looking like horses, but anthropomorphised enough to give them recognizable emotional responses. No character, human or animal, is exaggerated for cartoon effect.
I normally have problems with digital animation and computer created imagery and SPIRIT is, for the most part, computer created, although it replicates the look of traditional 2-D animation. Still, if this is the wave of the future, then SPIRIT shows us how it should be done. This is digital animation at the best I've ever seen it (including the Japanese anime features I've seen in the last few years). And combined with a good story and clean concept that doesn't patronize its audience, it's created what I think is the finest American animated feature since BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1991). If there is any significant flaw in SPIRIT, aside from the songs, it's that the story falls short of greatness, undercut by the lack of a sufficiently emotional payoff. Still, it's a better story than any I've seen in an American animated production since at least THE LION KING. Some viewers may quibble about the politically correct aspects of the story (cavalry=bad, Indians=good), but there is a moment near the end that balances things out in an intelligent, dramatic way.
SPIRIT may suffer at the boxoffice because it doesn't have the all-important lowest-common-denominator touches that have so cheapened the animated genre but attracted audiences looking for easy laughs (e.g. celebrity voices doing hyperactive genies, show-tune-singing meerkats and jive-talking jackasses). But it should give a measure of hope to that small, passionate segment of the audience that cares about animation as a medium capable in its own right of great storytelling and cinematic artistry.