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Spirit: How Two Reviewers See It

At a time when the preservation of wilderness country is a hotly debated political issue in our nation, there is nothing wrong with a reminder of how much we have already lost. “Spirit” is worth seeing just for the stunning animation and that environmental reminder.

DreamWorks Pictures hit the animation industry with a bang. Its first computer-animated films were gems: “Antz” and the hugely successful “Shrek.” Its traditional animation department established itself by avoiding the formula of most Disney features and trying to tell stories with a little more gravity.

DreamWorks’ first venture in traditional animation was “The Prince of Egypt,” lauded in many religious circles as an instant classic. It had beautiful animation, emotionally powerful songs and moments of true inspiration. The opening scene with the baby Moses floating down the Nile gave a new perspective on the faith of his mother. 

DreamWorks seemed poised as the David who would one day topple the Goliath of animation, Disney. That may still happen, but films like “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” will not be the stones which bring about the downfall.

“Spirit” is not a bad film. There are some beautiful moments in the animation. The film is a tribute to the lost beauty of the great frontier of the Western United States, and all the sweeping shots of landscapes, canyons, mountains and herds of buffalo are masterful, artistic achievements. They are intended to make the viewer yearn to see that world again, and they are successful in their mission. 

At a time when the preservation of wilderness country is a hotly debated political issue in our nation, there is nothing wrong with a reminder of how much we have already lost. The film perhaps would be worth seeing just for the stunning animation and that environmental reminder.

On the other hand, there should have been more. At some point the decision was made not to allow the animals to talk in the film. Some have said this was a good idea, and it is not really a problem, but it does distance the viewer from the main character, the stallion named Spirit. The audience is told the story through a voice-over narration (voiced by Matt Damon, speaking for Spirit).

Through what is shown on-screen and spoken by the narrator, the audience understands some of the history of the Old West. This history is, of course, condensed for the 80-minute film and often seems rushed. As a history lesson for children, it is probably as good as it could be, but one has to wonder if children are even involved enough in the story to understand the history being presented.

The history is also “politically correct,” with all the American Indians being virtuous, and all the settlers being villainous. Even the animated “Pocahontas” had the kind and gentle John Smith.

The Disney formula of cute comical sidekicks and nice show tunes has worn thin for many. But “Spirit” could have used a few more amusing moments and better music than the songs sung by Brian Adams over the action sequences. 

Children of all ages have made Disney films successful for a reason. Children and parents alike expect certain things from animated films, and “Spirit” does not deliver enough of those.

Spectacular animation sequences may not keep “Spirit” alive at the box office in a busy summer season when children will be pleading to see Anakin Skywalker and Peter Parker save the day one more time.

Roger Thomas is pastor of Northeast Baptist Church in Atlanta, Ga.

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The formula for a successful animated feature generally calls for talking animals, one of which acts as comic relief.

One quickly thinks of “The Lion King” that featured Pumba and Timon. The formula worked in that film because time had yet to take characters like Pumba and Timon and turn them hackneyed. It seems every recent animated film has featured characters like Pumba and Timon. 

Thankfully, “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” does not follow the formula. The closest it comes is having Matt Damon narrate the thoughts of the stallion named Spirit.

Spirit doesn’t dumb the story down for the sake of easy laughs. It focuses on Spirit, a wild stallion that does not want to be broken. Some of the film’s best scenes show Spirit running free on the Great Plains. But all good things must come to an end. When the white men expand into Western territory, the U.S. Cavalry captures Spirit. 

Being a horse with no desire to serve as a mount for some soldier, Spirit resists the breaking process. The outfit’s colonel wants the horse broken and becomes obsessed with having this horse in the corral for his unit.

But Spirit is saved by Little Creek, an American Indian who helps Spirit escape from the Cavalry.  Little Creek rides Spirit through the countryside with the army in hot pursuit. These scenes, too, are some of the best in the movie, for we are able to see action that could not be captured in a live-action film.

The film’s undertone deals with human expansion into land meant for horses and buffalo. Spirit embodies the reality that the plains were created for those who would run free. Spirit lives to run across the plains. His existence has nothing to do with domestication. Spirit lives to be free.

Spirit is not just a kiddy matinee; it’s for adults too. We always believe that our plans and our ways are the best. When we see something that stands in our way, we attempt to subdue it.  Land and animal alike must bow down to human will and human expansion. 

Spirit symbolizes that which should never be broken—a toughness without apology. Yet there is also a tenderness in Spirit that speaks of freedom as more than license. In the scene with an American Indian child, Spirit loves and accepts one who desires nothing other than just to live and let live. 

Thankfully, nobody breaks into song, except Bryan Adams (and most of this could have been left out). And there are no catch phrases—just a story that seems simplistic.

Yet, like one of Jesus’ parables, it has more depth than many would realize.

Mike Parnell is pastor of Burgaw Baptist Church in Burgaw, N.C.

MPAA Rating: G

Directors: Kelly Asbury and Lorna Cook

Cast: Narrator: Matt Damon; The Colonel: James Cromwell; Little Creek: Daniel Studi