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IN SHORT: nnn. [Rated G. minutes]
It's all about story, folks. It's got to be about story since producer Jeffrey Katzenberg -- well on his way to earning the title of most innovative idea-man in the animation world since the almighty Walt -- put forth the challenge of creating a story in which the main character (and nearly all of the supporting characters) never say a word.
They can't say a word. They're horses.
Sure, Disney's been making horses and other animals babble for years and Mr. Ed is still running on some TV net somewhere in the world. The process works great if you're making a comedy film but the Dreamworks team didn't set out to make a comedy. So you, the audience member, after struggling through the first fifteen or so minutes (during which we were beginning to fear that the movie was fast sliding into stinkerville) of Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, will discover that you are able to speak the language of the Horse.
The Dreamworks animation team has packed so much emotional expression into their character animation that we found ourselves so locked in to the horses that we didn't need to pay that much attention to the English speaking human bad guys or the one suitably translated to English Lakota Sioux speaking Native American.
The story is a simple one; of freedom and of an (individual's) right not to be indentured to any other -- in this case, horse to man. Like any newborn colt, (the film begins with the "birth" of our leading character) Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron stumbles a bit at its start, before finding its feet. We blame an absolutely emotionless line reading from narrator Matt Damon and what felt like too many songs crammed into the first act. Bryan Adams contributes the songs. We like Adams' music. If we wanted an album with pictures, which is how that first act feels, we would've bought a VCD. But Spirit stabilizes quickly as our lead horse, who has run wild and free for its entire life, forcibly loses that freedom when it stumbles into the world of Man. One aspect of man is represented by the evil Army Colonel (James Cromwell) and a gentler aspect by Little Creek, a Lakota Sioux (Daniel Studi). Both seek to break the horse, in their own ways. Both learn valuable lessons by the time the end credits roll.
We're going to deliberately withhold any more story information than that. It isn't because the studio asked us to. It's because the story, once it gets rolling, is nothing short of a great one. Let us define "great" . . .
The initial buzz about the flick -- it used to be called gossip -- was that Spirit was taking a big chance by targeting a female, teen audience. That's the opposite of the usual demo for 'toons, which tend to skew younger for "family" audiences or towards action oriented, male themes. Well, if you go back to the first sentence of this paragraph, you'll read a universal theme, one that works for any teen champing at the bit to bust free of parental controls. The story of Spirit will also hit the mark for any 20something who's just discovered that that freedom ain't all it's cracked up to be; any other adult whose work reality didn't match up with what they dreamed of as a kid; or any kid who wants to see a cool movie with a lot of running horses.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, he would have paid . . .
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