Take a politically correct morality play about Evil White Imperialists versus Noble Oppressed Minorities Living in Harmony with Nature, dress it up as entertaining family fare with cute animal sidekicks for comic relief and catchy sing-along tunes, and you’ve got one of the cartoons of the late Disney renaissance period (Pocahontas; The Hunchback of Notre Dame; Tarzan).
Now take away the comic relief and cute animal sidekicks, replace the catchy sing-along tunes with whiny, forgettable Bryan Adams rock anthems, and you’ve got DreamWorks’ Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, the story of an indomitable horse’s heroic resistance to domestication.
A strangely grim indoctrination into the politics of victimization, Spirit apparently expects kids to slog willingly through scene after scene of this stuff, not because it’s all such fun to watch, but because the filmmakers are so sure it’s Good For You. I imagine proud DreamWorks execs showing the finished product to their own children:
“Daddy, where’s Spirit going?”
“He wants to get a closer look at the campfire.”
“Who are those tied-up horses? They look sad. Is that because they aren’t free like Spirit?”
“Not necessarily, dear. Later on, you’ll see that horses can be happy in captivity if they live with Indians. It’s only white people’s horses that are unhappy.”
“Daddy, how does the movie know how horses feel?”
“Well, the screenwriter, John Fusco, knows all about horses. In fact, he’s actually got 22 mustangs himself at his New England farm.”
”He does? Are they sad because they’re not free like Spirit?”
“No, dear. According to producer Mirelle Soria, Mr. Fusco is an ‘honorary member of the Oglala-Lakota Tribe,’ so I’m sure his horses are perfectly happy.”
“Oh. Daddy, Spirit just tasted something yucky in that man’s canteen.”
“Yes, dear. A bit later, you’ll see that bad men not only drink yucky liquor, they also smoke tobacco.”
“Don’t Indians smoke tobacco too?”
“Not in this movie.”
“What’s that building the men are taking Spirit to?”
“It’s a cavalry fort. The bad men live there.”
“Only men? Where do the ladies and children live?”
“In this movie, ladies and children live in happy Indian camps. White people are all men, and live in forts with their unhappy horses.”
“Daddy, I feel bad that all those horses are unhappy.”
“You’re supposed to feel bad, dear. But don’t worry, after they tie up Spirit for three days with no food or water…”
“Yes. And they do the same thing to that nice Indian boy Little Creek voiced by Daniel Studi, too. But then Spirit busts them all out of there — the Indian boy, the sad horses, everyone. Later, the same cavalrymen capture Spirit again, but eventually he escapes again and frees even more horses. Then, after the cavalrymen find him again…”
“Again? How many times do those same cavalrymen keep finding him?”
“At least three. And they keep going after that Little Creek, too. They even attack his happy camp. They’re very industrious, those cavalrymen.”
“Well, okay, but three times…”
“Yes, when they run across Spirit the third time, the bad corporal voiced by James Cromwell says, ‘I don’t believe it’ — hopefully no one in the audience will feel the same way. But of course that’s after Spirit blows up the locomotives and the railroad camp…”
“A horse blows stuff up?”
“Just you wait. And then the bad guys try to shoot him. Or maybe it was Little Creek they were trying to shoot, I don’t think I ever figured out exactly what their motivation was. Oh, well, that’s why we call them bad guys.”
“Why does Spirit blow up the railroad project?”
“Because he doesn’t want white people bringing all their badness out West where he comes from. They don’t belong there.”
“But, Daddy, don’t we live in California?”
“Yes, dear, but we feel very bad about it.”
It’s a shame, because visually the picture is a triumph. At a time when computer animation is all the rage and the Disney machine — that bastion of “traditional” or hand-drawn animation — has stumbled badly, DreamWorks has set out to prove that traditional animation can still be impressive and spectacular. From the sprawling Old-West vistas in a sweeping opening sequence rivaling the “Circle of Life” opening from The Lion King, to the impressive action set piece in which Spirit, yes, destroys two locomotives and a railroad camp, to the soaring climactic stunt, Spirit is a wonder to behold.
I’m particularly impressed by the animation of the horses, which are (as I can personally vouch with my background in illustration) notoriously difficult to draw. The pains taken by the DreamWorks animators to master horse anatomy and movements pay off handsomely; they’ve figured out how to capture the feel of a real horse even while simplifying and stylizing the anatomy and making the faces more expressive and anthropomorphic.
The film is also effective in the way it allows the horses to express themselves nonverbally, without turning them into talking cartoon characters. Other than limited voiceovers by Matt Damon representing Spirit’s thoughts — a superfluous touch — the horses communicate with brilliantly rendered horse expressions and body language as well as real whinnyings and nickerings on the soundtrack. I was reminded of Disney’s Bambi, which used minimal dialogue to tell a story predominantly through visuals and music. Like Bambi, Spirit is visually eloquent, though musically it’s banal.
But Bambi was primarily about nature and life and death and growing up, and only secondarily a cautionary tale about man as the potential enemy of nature and the dangers of human irresponsibility. Spirit, by contrast, is primarily about the conflict between man and nature — or rather, between white males and nature, especially horses, with sympathetic native Americans on the side of nature and the horses.
Does anyone, even kids, want to see this story? Producer Jeffrey Katzenberg notes that horses “are among the most beloved and beautiful creatures on the planet,” adding, “I think there is a connection that we as human beings have had with horses, going back thousands of years.”
There is. Along with dogs, horses were the earliest domesticated animals. For millennia they took us faster and farther than we could go on our own legs, carried burdens and pulled loads too heavy for us, and bore us into battle.
Classic horse stories like Black Beauty and The Black Stallion celebrate this bond. Such stories may depict horses suffering under ill treatment, but they don’t make them out to be languishing in captivity as such, or longing only for freedom. On the contrary, they depict them as willing to serve humans if treated well.
Most kids love horses, which is to say, they would love to ride one, to have one of their own. Why anyone would think they would enjoy a story about horses wanting to have nothing to do with people is beyond me.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.