A year ago, Jeffrey Katzenberg hit the promotional circuit to support his green baby Shrek, and even before its release he proclaimed that its successor would be "bold and daring and unlike any other animated movie ever made." If by "bold" he meant "monotonous" and "daring" he meant "histrionic," the DreamWorks co-honcho was quite on target; if by "unlike any other animated movie ever made" he meant "just like every other animated movie ever made," he spoke without hyperbole.
After Shrek, an adored and awarded film as narratively stimulating as a sitcom and as visually stunning as a video game, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron gallops a thousand steps in the opposite direction. Notable only for its gimmick--Spirit is the rare cartoon in which its animals do not speak, except in voiceover, itself a conceit if not a downright cheat--it's an exceptionally dreary and overwrought bit of work, every bit as imperious as Katzenberg's The Prince of Egypt from 1998.
Spirit tells of wild horses romping across the unsettled West circa 1880, but it's not mere tall tale; rather, it feels as though it's intended to act as fable, a metaphor for slavery and the Holocaust. If so, it's a daring gambit--and also a clumsy one, because the filmmakers are unable or unwilling to merge the lightweight (for the children) and the heavy (for their parents). It's just one murky mess--too dull (and loud) for children, too condescending for adults. Then, what does one expect out of a movie that lets Bryan Adams do all its heavy lifting? Nothing, actually, aside from a very long music video that comes with its own soundtrack and, soon enough, DVD.
Cartoons are Jeffrey Katzenberg's fetish and his feast: As Disney chairman, he restored the studio's faded animation department with Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King, the latter of which made some $1 billion for the studio after video-game and stage-production and merchandising tie-ins were tallied. As the "K" in DreamWorks SKG, he's overseen production--and, depending on whom you choose to believe, direction--of, among others, the Disney-fied "fairy" tale The Road to El Dorado, the claymated Chicken Run and Shrek. Stallion is almost retro when held against the latter two; it's that dreaded combination of hand-drawn and computer-generated animation, a cartoon in which humans appear claymated and backgrounds look as flat as paper.
The promise was there: Buried somewhere beneath the grandiloquent soundtrack is an often charming and occasionally touching film; the horses, given gender and voice (sort of--you "hear" words where there are none), have characterization enough to render them engaging. But the filmmakers, Katzenberg chief among them, have so little faith in the audience's ability to keep pace with a story in which not much happens they deaf and dumb you to death. Every incident--every scene--is punctuated with a Bryan Adams song that underscores what we've seen or a Hans Zimmer melody that recalls Bruckheimer by way of Bernstein; it's The Magnificent Seven hopping a ride on Con Air. Spirit's too scared to be contemplative, too cowardly to be quiet, and so the magical or memorable moments--the birth of the horse, the "death" of a mare, the reunion of old friends--are mundane and laughable. It even resembles a 1980s hair-metal video in places; the lightning strikes illuminating a pitch-black screen seem to signal the arrival of David Coverdale.
When the film's not arena-rocking you to sleep, Matt Damon chimes in as the voice of Spirit, a stallion born in freedom but subjected to captivity--first, when he's captured by Army soldiers, led by a cruel commanding officer voiced by James Cromwell, who buzz his mane and break his spirit, then by a Lakota warrior (Daniel Studi) who becomes his "brother under the sun" (says so right there in the lyric sheet). The Titan A.E. star, given lines about being "as wild and reckless as thunder over the land," sounds as though he's reading from freshly minted cue cards; you can almost hear him swing his fist in punctuation, by golly.
The entire operation seems contrived to compensate for a story that never evolved beyond its initial pitch; it's less a screenplay (by John Fusco, author of The Babe and Thunderheart) than an outline incapable of withstanding any weight. The film is never subversive or even smart enough to warrant its metaphors; either they're accidental (breaking a horse, then a human, by lashing it to a post and starving it) or foisted upon us without subtlety or insight. Cromwell's cavalry colonel reminds one of Ralph Fiennes' Amon Goeth from Schindler's List; he's a sadist in a kiddie film, a cruel soldier given to angry pronouncements and fits of violence. And one scene, in which Spirit and other horses are being transported to a camp of railroad workers in the dead of winter, looks like something lifted from every Holocaust film; some scenes beg for a film titled The Road to Auschwitz. Oh, yeah. Kids will love it.
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