DreamWorks borrows a page from Walt Disney's book on epic animated adventures with its new widescreen production, "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron." The studio that playfully skewed Disney in "Shrek" flatters the competition with this imitation of Disney style and sincerity.
"Spirit" trots confidently in the hoof-steps of old-fashioned family films such as "Black Beauty" and "The Black Stallion," while giving obvious nods to "Dumbo" and "The Lion King."
Although notable for stunning visuals that combine traditional animation and 3-D computer effects, "Spirit" doesn't break much new ground stylistically or story-wise. But the film is solid family adventure and one of the notable summer entries for all ages.
Set in the old American West, "Spirit" begins with the birth of the mustang into a herd that coexists peacefully with the natural, unspoiled environment. The filmmakers beautifully render soaring eagles, majestic mountains and the wide-open prairie. The idyllic animation is bathed in light as the horses frolic, but it darkens with danger when predators appear, first in the form of hunting wildcats and later, not surprisingly, as the more ominous "two-leggeds."
The film offers the valiant, proud Spirit as the symbol of the purity of the West. Some adults may quibble with the film's not-very-subtle depiction of manifest destiny: First, a company of crass Union Army soldiers captures Spirit and tries in vain to break him. Later, the horse is exploited again by workers on the Union Pacific Railroad as it snakes into the West, bringing with it permanent change to the animal and Native American ways of life.
The unbreakable Spirit bonds with a young brave, Little Creek, who is also exploited by the soldiers overrunning the once-untouched West. Spirit falls for Rain, Little Creek's loyal palomino, who sports a feather in her mane. The film follows a predictable course of romance, friendship and triumph over adversity, with the visual spectacle often working hard (and usually succeeding) to make up for a sentimental and not very original story.
There are several thrilling sequences of flight, one through the peaks and valleys of the Grand Canyon, with Little Creek clinging to a galloping Spirit.
"Spirit" makes the choice to forgo speaking animals, allowing them to communicate through sounds and movement and Matt Damon's voice-over narration. This is effective, but in what seems a large concession to commercialization, the film substitutes schmaltzy (and anachronistic) Bryan Adams power ballads for dialogue. Despite this, "Spirit" is a welcome family film that extols noble values and offers first-class animation.
"Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron"
Directed by Kelly Asbury, Lorna Cook; written by John Fusco; edited by Nick Fletcher; production designed by Kathy Altieri; music by Hans Zimmer, Bryan Adams; produced by Mireille Soria, Jeffrey Katzenberg. A DreamWorks Pictures release; opens Friday, May 24. Running time: 1:22. MPAA rating: G.
Spirit - voice of Matt Damon
The Colonel - voice of James Cromwell
Little Creek - voice of Daniel Studi