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'Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron'

'Spirit' is a magnificent, action-packed equine adventure

Friday, May 24, 2002

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

Mr. Ed is dead, thank God. What a hideous mutant he was. In Ed's stead comes "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron," a lovely piece of family-fare feature animation that restores dignity to the great American horse.

'Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron'


VOICES: Matt Damon, Daniel Studi, James Cromwell

DIRECTORS: Kelly Asbury and Lorna Cook

WEB SITE: www.dreamworks.com/spirit



Spirit, our heroic title character, is a magnificent buckskin-colored mustang, the leader of his Cimarron herd with the responsibility of protecting them. But his idyllic world -- and the film's idyllic opening sequence -- ends all too soon with his capture by the U.S. Cavalry.

After unsuccessful attempts to "break" him, the outfit's fearsome Colonel decrees "discipline, time and patience" to be the solution: Spirit is tied to a post for three days without food or water. Meanwhile, a captured Indian boy named Little Creek is assigned the same fate. They are allies in the making.

I'd never make it as a cowboy (or Indian, for that matter). Watching rodeos in Kansas as a kid, nothing ever seemed more awful to me than the theory and practice of "breaking" a horse.

Needless to say, we cheer Spirit's escape and liberation -- only to see him quickly recaptured, this time by Indians.

Ah, but Native American masters are better. They tame him with apples instead of whips, plus the added incentive of a pretty little palomino paint mare named Rain! Cherchez la femme.

"Spirit's" essence, however, is not his domestic or domesticated situation. It's ACTION -- non-stop -- in a series of superbly drawn adventure sequences: a terrific rapids-and-waterfall rescue and a fabulous chase through a narrow canyon, ending with a breathtaking leap, perhaps inspired by -- and as good as anything in -- the live-action "Crouching Tiger."

Piece de la resistance is a spectacular train scene in which the horses are forced to haul a locomotive up a steep mountain -- until rebelling in a wondrous Gotterdammerung of fire and destruction.

What's nice here is that the horses don't talk or exhibit other excessively absurd anthropomorphic traits. There is a minimally intrusive narrator (the voice of Matt Damon), but no cute chipmunks with berets, no crooning crickets, no comic jive-ass camels. It's zoologically as well as politically correct.

Also nice is that Little Creek, the young Lakota Indian brave, is slender to the verge of scrawny -- no muscle-bound macho guy -- and softly voiced by Native American actor Daniel Studi. I suspect that female co-directors Kelly Asbury and Lorna Cook had something to do with that. Kudos to them. If only they could have done away with the obligatory sappy songs ...

Producer Jeffrey Katzenberg says he wanted to marry hand-drawn animation with state-of-the-art computer technology to get the best of both worlds. I think he has done so: The rendering of equine anatomy, locomotion and behavior is excellent.

Horses are the most beautiful, soulful, beloved-by-man creatures on the planet, and this is the first animated film to feature one as the central character. It's a tale of the American West from the horse's point of view, yearning for redemption from being beasts of burden.

Isn't that a Rolling Stones song? Yes -- and wild horses couldn't drag me away from this movie.

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