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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (review)

The latest from DreamWorks’ animation arm is so close to being a great film that it can’t help but leave you with the bitter aftertaste of what might have been. It’s got that tremendously moving Lion King circle-of-life, fundamental-interconnectedness-of-all-things thing going for it, plus that poignant Dances with Wolves what-did-we-lose-when-we-won-the-West thing, plus stunningly gorgeous, downright heartrending animation, a combination of hand-drawn and computer aided, that effortlessly elicits tears of joy that so much amazing beauty can be captured in so simple a palette and with such uncomplicated strokes. Its tale of a noble, wild stallion’s first encounter with humans — both cruel American army officers and kindly Lakota tribespeople — is told plainly enough for the smallest child to grasp: The story is conveyed almost entirely visually, with very little dialogue (the horses don’t speak, except in emotive neighs and whinnies). And where the film falls down is where its makers didn’t trust that visual instinct. Matt Damon’s (Ocean’s Eleven) flat narration, as the inner voice of the stallion, does nothing but needlessly reiterate thoughts and feelings that are already clearly understood, and Bryan Adams’ songs are worse, hammering us so that the story’s genuine passion gets crushed into phony sentimentality. An unaffected score — one that actually featured some Western twang or Native American rhythms — was all that was needed (thought that wouldn’t be likely to move soundtracks). Spirit is a good film, and even at moments spectacular — like the staggering train-crash sequence — but it could have been one for the ages.

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MPAA: rated G

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb
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