VERIFICATION: Spirit: Cimarron Standard (2002)

Take care of her… A spirit… that cannot be broken.

Movie reviews

I’ve always wondered why people don’t talk much about DreamWorks Animation’s hand-drawn films. Maybe it’s because the studio itself so rarely advertises, or maybe it’s because of all the other traditional animated films of the time. With the exception of Prince of Egypt, all of these DreamWorks films are box-office hits, and their reviews are more or less good. After Shrek, the next studio release was Spirit: Cimarron’s stallion in 2002. The Road to El Dorado and especially Prince of Egypt have achieved cult status online among die-hard fans, but I’ve never heard of The Spirit. I didn’t even see that movie when it came out, although I remember the Happy Meal bonding toys, of which I had a few. I saw it a few years later and I was a little disappointed. I didn’t dislike The Spirit, but it lacked both the subtle and powerful storytelling of The Prince of Egypt and the wacky, character-based comedy of The Road to El Dorado. I remember being bored during the brief 86 minute intermission. But like many people, my tastes change over time and I was wondering if this movie is one of the most appealing to adults. I didn’t like Bambi or the Hunchback of Notre Dame at all when I was a kid, for example. While Bambi is certainly not one of my favorite films, both films have an artistic value that I could not appreciate at the time. It is noteworthy that none of the animals speak in the Spirit, which may have startled or disturbed the children (myself included). I’m also intrigued by Netflix’s recent spin-off series, Spirit. The only thing they have in common with the film at this time is the title horse. I’m not sure I’m interested in either series, but I can’t help but be curious about its connection to this 20-year-old film, which has been largely forgotten. Anyway, I rewatched the movie for this review to see if I felt differently now. Well, let’s see.

The mind: The stallion Cimarron guides the wild horse from birth to maturity. As he matures, the spirit becomes the leader of his herd and takes on tasks such as protecting the foals from mountain lions. Everything seems fine until the ghost finds a group of people and gets too curious, wakes them up and takes them prisoner. He ends up on a military base with the intention of a colonel (James Cromwell) taking him apart and training him. Although initially reluctant to trust a human, he eventually befriended a Lakota Indian named Little Creek (Daniel Studi). Both of the colonel’s prisoners bravely escape, freeing the other horses. To his horror, he is tied up again as soon as Little Creek takes him home to his tribe. But there he meets Rain, Little Creek’s mare. Their mutual trust and affection for men is confused and rejected by the Spirit, but He immediately loves them. Spirit changes hands several times over the course of the film, and Rain takes a long fall that leaves her trapped and motionless, while Spirit is pulled again. When he finds Little Creek and Rain, his mind is torn between deciding whether to stay with them or go back to his herd and join them.

The mind: Cimarron’s stallion is just great. Some elements of the CGI can be distracting, especially in the beginning. But the horses, the unstable western backdrop and the sky are simply breathtaking. The drawing and movement of the horses are well-defined visual accents in the film, but the colors of the sky and clouds are also very nice. I still prefer the epic look of Prince of Egypt and the bright colors of El Dorado, but I admire what this film has accomplished, and it goes beyond what it sets out to accomplish visually. However, the human characters are among those I have with hand-drawn pictures. They’re not distracting, they’re just not very visible. This is forgivable for casual soldiers and people working on the railroad, but the Colonel and Little Creek should have gotten a little more attention in this area. I could only distinguish the Colonel because of his uniform, and Little Creek because his two friends look like background characters from the Eldorado.

The original music is by Hans Zimmer, who did wonders on Prince of Egypt. However, while the music is in the mind: The Cimarron stallion tends to look optimistic and adventurous, not great or, again, distinctive. While watching the movie, I pointed out to my husband that it sounded like aggressive and optimistic music, and he agreed. I usually love Zimmer’s work, and it’s not that bad here, it’s just so off-putting. Instead of feeling like an organic extension of the film’s narrative, it sounds like music that could come from anywhere. I feel the same way about Brian Adams’ songs being played in different scenes. Many people complain about Phil Collins’ songs for Tarzan, and I’ve never understood that. They are great, I love the words and they move the story forward and develop the characters. However, in reviewing The Spirit, I felt that this must be the feeling people talk about when they see Tarzan. Adams musically narrates Spirit’s thoughts as neither he nor the other animals speak in the film. I don’t like these songs, but they sound like normal pop rock to me. And I like some of Adams’ music, so he’s not the problem here. Elton John’s songs in The Road to El Dorado are not only very good and truly memorable, but they are also an integral part of the film’s image. If you were in charge, we wouldn’t be able to get Tulio and Miguel to go to El Dorado. The upbeat song contrasts with the difficulties and antics they face, giving the audience the impression that although it is a dangerous journey, it is a fun adventure of self-discovery. If you remove the songs in Spirit, nothing artistic or narrative is lost. In most cases, it is clear that the spirit and its friends think with their body language and facial expressions. That’s the magic of animation at work, and I wish they’d let it speak for itself. I know the movie was meant for a family audience, but kids aren’t that dumb. When a character’s intentions are written on his face or he is defeated, I think people will understand.

A voice that works in the mind: Cimarron’s stallion is pretty good. Wes Studi’s son, Daniel, is as big as Little Creek, mainly because he often talks to horses that can’t talk back. James Cromwell does an excellent job as a colonel, although I don’t like the redemption arc of this character, if we can call him that. It has nothing to do with Cromwell’s performance, it’s just a strange letter. The Colonel is a man motivated by a need for control. He wants to control the expansion of the United States westward, control the Indians, control the horses. He’s not terribly complex or likable, but I think he works pretty well as the film’s villain until the end. When Spirit and Little Creek finally escape again, one of the soldiers points his gun at them, but the Colonel orders him to put it away, nodding his head at his opponents as they leave. I think they are trying to say retroactively that the colonel is someone who respects an equal so he can be an equal after he proves himself. But that doesn’t make sense. The ghost has not submitted to him and his training, and Little Creek has proven time and time again that he is a more than capable opponent. Why would the colonel chase them through the desert and prairie more than once and then let them go? It’s very inconsistent. If this was an attempt to humanize the Colonel and show that he’s not so bad, it’s too late in the film and contradicts all the other things he’s done and said. Finally, we have Matt Damon as the Spirit. Like I said, the ghost doesn’t speak, and neither do the other horses and creatures in the film. Damon, however, narrates the mind’s thoughts between empty platitudes about freedom and the power of the indestructible spirit. Damon’s reading is pretty good, I just wonder if we need a narrator. We already have clear body language and facial expressions, not to mention songs that literally tell us what the mind is thinking or wanting. Any of them could work, but all three? I would stick to the movements of the mind to tell us how we feel. After all, no one talks about Rain, her mother or the other animals in the film, but you can see what they’re thinking. This is especially evident when Raine has an accident and Damon calls to say he hopes and prays she’s okay. The ghost falls to his side, visibly distracted by his situation. I don’t think it was necessary or helpful to explain this verbally to the public. I love Damon’s opening and closing monologues, the introduction to the film and finally the farewell to Little Creek. But everything else, and probably the songs, I had cut off. It’s no good feeding your audience information that’s already obvious.

Judgment: Good

Combination, Esprit: Cimarron’s stallion is good. The voice acting and visuals are excellent, but are marred by superfluous storytelling and incoherent characterization of the villain. I’d say it’s worth checking out once, if only for the beautiful animation.

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