After the mammoth success of Shrek, the writing was on the wall for DreamWorks’ impeding abandonment of traditional animation. I like to think Katzenberg just threw a switch and shut everything down, then realized he probably should finish the final two 2D films in production and spit them out into theaters. As a burgeoning medium, CG was definitely a draw for the general public, but the complete disposal of it by DreamWorks, Disney and everyone else was, and still is, disheartening. It varies from movie to movie why the 2D films of the 2000s didn’t succeed: tightened budgets, poor marketing… but a lot of times, they just weren’t very good movies, regardless of the medium. Spirit is one of these, and I almost feel bad for saying it. It’s almost as alien as Prince of Egypt to me in that you would never, ever think of it as a DreamWorks movie had it not been for the company logo at the front of it. Its ambition and commitment to its different form of storytelling is very admirable, and the film is thoroughly gorgeous… but it’s also boring. Boring as hell.
There’s not really that much of a premise to speak of here. Spirit, as he is dubbed near the end of the film, is a gallant stallion, leading his herd as they run free and easy through the unsettled American west. But as always, humans need to fuck some stuff up, as members of the cavalry rope him up and take him back to base. The no-nonsense colonel is busy fighting the Indian wars, but takes special time to try to break the will of this seemingly unbreakable horse. Eventually, Spirit escapes, with the help of a fellow captive, an Indian named Little Creek. He finds himself in captivity again in the hands of the Indians, but finds that they actually treat horses with compassion and respect, and he slowly gains a friendship with Little Creek, as well as his lovely mare. But during a cavalry ambush, Spirit is captured again, carted off with fellow horses in making the Transcontinental Railroad. He escapes once more, and he and Little Creek have to evade the colonel and his men as they give chase. …yeah, they escape.The film is told from the perspective of Spirit, who, unlike all other animated animals, doesn’t speak. Everything is communicated completely through body language, or the minimal dialogues from the human characters along the way. …well, almost. Someone high up clearly got nervous about this creative decision, so in the end, narration was added in of Spirit retelling his story, voiced by good ol’ Matt Damon. But honestly, it wasn’t that bothersome. What this film really reminded me of was Disney’s Dinosaur, especially in that aspect. Both films were devised as very meditative and documentary-like, with showing animals just being animals, until greater powers intervened. But where Dinosaur added wise-cracking lemurs, stock characters, and horrendous dialogue, all that’s been added here is some voice-over, which is basically unnecessary for the most part, as it’s basically just reiterating the simplistic plot in case you couldn’t easily extrapolate it from the actions of the characters. But the narration doesn’t pop up that much anyway, so it’s not a particularly egregious addition.
I feel obligated to admire this movie for what it is, especially after mentally comparing it to Dinosaur. It didn’t cop out of its vision, and stayed true to what it was. There’s some really fantastic animation here with Spirit, who essentially doesn’t need to speak; you can read absolutely everything he feels and thinks with his facial animation and body language. In some scenes, I really felt captivated by the film being played completely silently, and how effectively it was handled. But this is a seventy-five minute movie, short for a film, but it feels soooooo long. But a lot of it is from the fact that nothing really happens; I’m all for telling smaller stories and focusing on themes and characters, but there’s really not much here. It’s about a horse yearning to regain his freedom, and meeting humans of two different ideologies on the matter, and that’s about it. There just needed to be more here; this would have worked better as a TV special or something. If they came up with somewhat of a meatier story, then maybe it could have been bumped to film-length, but then it kind of would have stepped on the quaint charming smallness of this whole thing. Man, what a catch 22…Taking place in the past, this film also suffers from an unavoidable bittersweet ending. Yeah, Spirit and Little Creek escaped the cavalry, they’re free! Yep, totally free, they’re gonna be A-OK… right? But even odder in that the colonel in the end didn’t seem like such a bad guy; he was so impressed by their amazing jump over the side of the canyon that he gives them an affirmative nod and goes off. Bitches be so talented, I tip my hat to them. It made it like they had some kind of respect for the Indians, which of course we know how history turned out there…
There actually are quite a few things I like here. But y’know what, I was bored. Bored bored bored. There’s just so many stretches here of just nothing happening; the gorgeous scenery and striking animation can only pull me in so much when nothing engaging is happening story or character-wise. And really Spirit is the only interestingly animated character; the other horses and humans are just kind of… eh. Oh yeah, and we also see the first ever animated horse birth in film. Like, you literally see a little Spirit baby come out of her mother, and that’s not a gag. That’s how the movie starts. But yeah, though Prince of Egypt I’d say is definitely the better movie, I feel similarly to it with this one in that I admire what it was more than I actually enjoyed watching the film. It’s like a mutual respect thing. I dunno.