Animation styles old and new converge with mixed results in “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.” This story of the Old West from a horse’s point of view sports a noble “my spirit will never be broken” central theme as well as a fashionably p.c. pro-horse-and-Indian, anti-white settler political bent, backed up by a host of soaring Bryan Adams vocals. Saddled with a sentimentally “sincere” subject and lacking the stylistic and humorous cachet of the recent computer-animated smashes, this handsome widescreen production presents the DreamWorks marketing department with a tall order: attracting a sizeable public beyond the obvious target audience of pre-teen girls.
What “Spirit” does possess that most other recent animated films do not is a strong dose of emotion based on genuine peril. There are moments that will upset some of the small fry, but the upside is that this odyssey of a beautiful horse going through the rigors of life creates a dramatic pull that will grab many youthful viewers more accustomed to simple prankish humor and jeopardy that can magically be solved by superheroes.
Synthesizing elements of traditional painterly animation and 3-D computer work to an unprecedented degree, this joint directorial debut by the story supervisors of DreamWorks’ “The Prince of Egypt,” Kelly Asbury and Lorna Cook, majestically intros the unsullied grandeur of the American West as it follows an eagle soaring over what looks like a combination of Goosenecks, Monument Valley and Lake Powell. Backdrops in general are more detailed than are found in most old school animation — they often resemble painted cycloramas — but don’t approach the quasi-photographic sharpness of some computer work.
Narrator — and title character — is a mustang that grows up to be so fast and headstrong that it likes to race the eagle that every so often flies into the picture as a reminder of unencumbered freedom. Encountering humans for the first time at a forest campsite, Spirit is roped after a wild chase and taken to an army fort, where the harsh colonel in command determines to break him.
Pic effectively gets away with jettisoning any animal dialogue through the heavy use of music, sparing doses of narration and interequine communication achieved through looks, gestures and whinnies. By these means, the horses warn each other about impending danger, and even more pointedly celebrate when, for example, Spirit humiliates the soldiers who presume to try to break him in the fort corral.
At the fort, Spirit establishes an initial bond with another captive, an Indian named Little Creek. After they escape, Spirit has every intention of returning to his herd until he meets Little Creek’s horse Rain, a pretty pinto with a feather in her mane. A romantic romp leaves Spirit feeling the lure of domesticity for the first time, but then the cavalry intrudes again, leading to a suspenseful and traumatic episode, straight out of a silent movie, that throws Spirit and Rain into some raging rapids that carry them toward a giant waterfall.
A period of separation and enslavement follows; its message, consistent with the four-footed p.o.v. and absolute purity of nature ideal, is resolutely anti-development of the West. Celebratory, music-driven ending will cheer up any moppets shaken by prior events, but from an adult perspective, wrap-up feels overly simplistic.
Although the straight-line script by John Fusco (“Young Guns”) offers few surprises, and no irony or playfulness to leaven its grade-school notions about history and the environment, the actual experience of watching the picture is mostly pleasurable thanks to the nicely paced sweep of events, the grandly rendered settings, the emotional appeal of freedom vs. constraint and the degree to which Adams’ songs and Hans Zimmer’s music amplify the tale’s impact. There’s nothing thrilling or new about the work here, but accomplished it is.
Spirit himself is an engaging hero, certainly a leader and role model among horses. Rain is cute in a demure sort of way. With Matt Damon handling most of the vocal chores through Spirit’s philosophical musings, dialogue by human characters is kept to a minimum, although accents in general are jarringly modern American rather than old Western.