Okay guys, this is going to be a short one. Firstly because I fell waaaay the damn behind schedule with this review and secondly because I review movies by recapping the plot and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron has less of a plot and more of an outline. Very, very little happens and less of it is of interest. Because once again, I have tried to love Dreamworks and it has repaid me with treachery.
You see, I had never seen this one. In fact Spirit was the last of the early traditionally animated Dreamworks films I hadn’t seen and I was all set to continue my concerto writing meth dealer analogy from the last review, arguing that Dreamworks could have surpassed Disney as the greatest American purveyors of traditional animation if audiences hadn’t been seduced by the glossy CGI succubus (Pixelitia! How I curse thee!) and then…ugh.
So true story, I sat down to watch this with Mini Mouse and at around the hour mark she turns to me, rolls her eyes and says:
Dreamworks? She’s a five year old girl. If you can’t sell a five year old girl a cartoon with horses, you have FAILED. You have failed more totally than it should be possible for human beings to fail. You have created a masterpiece of ineptitude. You broke the damn scale.
What went wrong? Let’s take a look.
So, in my last review I described Jeffrey Katzenberg as a film-maker who makes you go “Hmmmmm…”. Spirit does not, at first blush, seem to be deliberately aping any Disney or Pixar movie directly. But then we see sweeping vistas, our main character’s birth in a field and over-written, painfully pretentious narration and oh God no, no, no, no…
Oh of all the…
OF ALL THE DISNEY MOVIES TO RIP OFF YOU WENT WITH THE ABSOLUTE WORST ONE. YOU FUCKING ANIMALS.
Okay, Spirit does actually manage to improve on Dinosaur in one important respect. Whereas in Dinosaur the main characters looked like butt on a cracker, in Spirit they look amazing. In fact, if I had to give props to this movie for anything, it is that it probably has some of the most perfectly animated horses I have ever seen. Which, given that this is an animation about horses, I suppose is not nothing. But, in a perfect example of how traditional animation remains ever young whereas CGI rots and decays like a dead dog on a summer’s road, the backgrounds look terrible and fake. Another interesting feature of the movie (and one it gets a lot of credit for from critics which I don’t think it earns) is that all the horses are silent throughout the movie. This, incidentally, was how Disney were originally going to do Dinosaur until they chickened out and had all the character’s speaking.
Now, telling a story with silent protagonists is gutsy, because it’s so much harder to establish characters that the audience will want to root for and to tell a tale with any kind of complexity. Can be done, absolutely. But very tricky. Spirit tries to cheat by having our main character narrate for us but this fails for two reasons. Firstly, let’s take a look at the opening monologue, along with my annotations:
“The story that I want to tell you cannot be found in a book you’re a horse, you have no concept of a book, shut up . They who? Who?! say that the history of the west was written from the saddle of a horse, but it’s never been told from the heart of one excuse me, where’s my puking bucket. Not till now when is now? What’s happening now? Since you, Spirit, a dumb animal, decided to star in this movie? Are you monologuing? Who you talking to? Are these just your thoughts? What’s happening NOW?. I was born here, in this place that would come to be called the Old West so not only do you know what humans will call this place but you can see the future, damn but you’re a talented fucking horse. But, to my kind, the land was ageless. It had no beginning and no end, no boundary between earth and sky. Like the wind and the buffalo grass, we belonged here, we would always belong here slow down, Runs with Monologue, I’m becoming overcome with how one with the land you are. They say the mustang is the spirit of the West YOU’RE FROM SPAIN, YOU IDIOT. Whether that West was won or lost in the end YOU ARE A HORSE, WHAT DO YOU KNOW OF SUCH THINGS you’ll have to decide for yourself, but the story I want to tell you is true I DON’T BELIEVE YOU, YOU BEEN LYING TO MY FACE SINCE YOU GOT HERE. I was there and I remember ooooooohhh good for you!. I remember the sun, the sky, and the wind calling my name in a time when we ran free well I’ve seen the wolf cry to the blue corn moon, asked the grinning bobcat why he grins and painted with all the colours of the wind and you can’t do any of those things because YOU ARE A HORSE. I’ll never forget the sound and the feeling of running together. The hoof beats were many, but our hearts were one.” I wish you only had one heart between you because then most of you would be dead.
Sorry, I don’t mean to come off bitter. But damn tho that is some bad writing. But then we get our second problem. Because the voice actor chosen to give life to this plate of overcooked verbal tripe was…
Look, nothing against the guy. Decent to good actor. But Matt Damon’s whole niche is being the everyman lead. Let me ask you a question. Do you think you could do an impression of Matt Damon that anyone could recognise? I don’t mean quoting lines like “How you like them apples?” I mean, just talking but in a Matt Damon voice. Could anybody tell what you were doing? Probably not, right? And that’s your first clue that he shouldn’t be doing voice work. If an actor doesn’t have a voice that’s instantly recognisable and memorable then they should stick to acting where their physicality and expressions are visible. You know, sometimes I think we’d all be better off if Beauty and the Beast had never been nominated for that dang Oscar. Once Katzenberg got a taste for gold he started chasing it with dreck like Pocahontas and Spirit. You can almost picture him madly scribbling notes in a darkened study whispering “It has Indians! It has big name stars! It has songs about being one with the Earth! It’s about AMERICA! They must give us the precious, they must!”
Just…Matt Damon? You made a movie about a horse who personifies the furious, untameable spirit of the Old West and you went with Matt Damon? Literally ANY ACTOR I can think of would be better in this part. SMOWE! Give me a random actor!
Yup, totally works better.
Alright, so Spirit is born, he grows up, he becomes leader of his herd and they roam the plains of the Mid-West grazing and personifying the ancient wildness of the continent’s great spirit as ya do as ya do. Now, as I mentioned before, the plot of this thing could literally be summarised on the back of a matchbox so the movie pads its running time with songs and in the process becomes a useful textbook case as to how a bad score can absolutely tank a movie. Seriously, I can’t remember a movie that suffers so much from poor musical choices as this one. You could take the entire John Williams score from Star Wars and replace it with a hobo on a kazoo and the film would survive better than this. And it’s doubly galling to me because the score was done by one of my favourite movie composers, none other than the FUCKING ZIM!
So what’s the problem? Well, let’s compare this to another Hans Zimmer score for an animated movie.
There are many reasons why The Circle of Life is as epic and masterful as it is. A terrific score, fantastic vocals all across the board and some very strong lyrics from Elton John. But I would argue that another reason it succeeds is the use of a live orchestra. This sequence is trying to make us feel that we are witnessing something ancient, wondrous and mythical and you simply can’t do that with synthetic sound. You can’t make the audience feel at one with nature with a sound that is obviously artificial. I don’t know why Spirit’s score makes such heavy use of electric keyboard but once that choice was made, that was the shooting match. Zimmer could write the most ethereal, soul-stirring melodies possible but it was still going to sound like a corporate motivational video.
And then there are the songs. Again, sorry if I keep harping on about this, but this movie is about the wild spirit of the frontier as told through the experience of an untameable Mustang horse. These songs need authenticity, depth, the sense of tapping into a deeper, trancendant truth. Think about the kind of artist who best meets that description. Were you thinking of Bryan Adams? No, no. Bryan Adams post “Summer of ‘69”.
Yeah, that’s what I thought.
The songs are bad in and of themselves but they work so hard to destroy the atmosphere the movie is trying to create that part of me thinks Adam’s was taking the Mouse’s shilling. In fact, oh criminey…
It’s true. Home on the Range was better at using its songs to create a consistent tone and sense of place. It’s just awful. Watching Spirit getting broken in at a corral to the strains of Get Off Of My Back is the kind of tonal dissonance you’d get if someone layered Spice Girls over Dances with Wolves.
But anyway, the “plot”. One day, Spirit hears something strange on the wind and goes to explore, finding…
Spirit gets captured by some US soldiers and taken back to their barracks while his mother and the rest of the herd look on helplessly. Oh and there’s this bit where Spirit yells to them “Run! Leave me!” and his mother’s all “NOOOOO!” but here’s the thing, they do it all in horse neighs and it is GODDAMN HILARIOUS.
At the barracks, Spirit comes face to face with The Colonel, voiced by James Cromwell a great and respected actor who doesn’t have a particularly distinctive voice and who’s warm avuncular presence is pissed away on this part like so much…piss. The soldier’s try to break Spirit in but he’s the personification of the wild untameable west in case you haven’t heard so the Colonel orders him to be left out in the yard with no food or water for three days to learn him some manners.
The soldiers capture an Indian named Little Creek (Daniel Studi) and tie him to a post near Spirit.
Because Little Creek is Native American he’s got a psychic connection with all horses and he and Spirit escape together and flee to Little Creek’s tribe. There, Spirit meets Little Creek’s mare, Rain, and oh my here’s where things get weird. Spirit watches Rain playing with Little Creek in a way that is decidedly…not platonic and gets really jealous. And in case you think I’ve just got a perverted mind, here is some actual dialogue that was actually written for this children’s movie.
“I couldn’t understand it. She treated this scrawny two-legged like one of our kind, prancing around him like a love-struck yearling. It was down right unnatural.”
Little Creek tries to ride Spirit (not like that. I think) but can’t because blah blah he’s so untameable or whatever. So Little Creek tries to convince Spirit that living amongst humans isn’t all bad by using Rain as bait (ah, the honey trap).
So he ties Spirit and Rain together and he sets them loose. Spirit tries to run away but Rain won’t go and then she uses the rope to tie him up and make flirty eyes and oh my God I’m watching two cartoon horses engage in bondage when did this become my life?
Rain and Spirit run around and fall in love to a Bryan Adams song that’s not Summer of ’69 which means that their love shall be cursed in the sight of God. They return to the camp and Little Creek tries to ride Spirit again but he’s all “Nope, still untameable” and Little Creek decides to let him go so he can be one with the land and shit. But then, the Colonel attacks the village and Rain gets shot and falls into the river. Spirit jumps after her and manages to pull her out of the water by grabbing her with…his…back? He brings her to shore but she’s dying from her bullet wound. Spirit tries to stay with her but he gets captured by the soldiers and sent to work dragging a big ass train up a mountain with a team of other horses.
Realising that the train is going to bring European settlers and industrialisation which will destroy the delicate ecosystem and unspoiled majesty of the American interior as well as delivering a death blow to the last remnants of Native American civilisation as a free and independent political and cultural entity (that’s one smart horse) Spirit decides to sabotage the train and causes it to go rolling down the mountain.
Turns out the army really liked that train and they’re just about to send Spirit to the glue factory. But Little Creek shows up and rescues him and they hightail it back to his village. Rain’s still alive because of course she is which doesn’t stop the movie from milking it for every drop of mawkish pap it can. Little Creek gives Spirit his name and sets both horses free and they go back and find his mom or something, I dunno, I’m pretty sure I slept through the last twenty minutes.
Dreamworks trying to do serious and heartfelt reminds me that they literally only pulled that off once and comedy is really more their bag. I may keep waiting for another Prince of Egypt, but it’ll never happen. Spirit is dull, moribund Oscar bait and I hate it a lot more than other, objectively worse films.
So, that was Dreamworks month. Let us never speak of it again.
Yes, yes, horses are a nightmarish assembly of angles liable to make the stoutest animator go mad at the very sight of them and they look very convincing golf clap, golf clap. Backgrounds are still garbage, though.
Just phoned in. Everything from the vocal performance to the design. Dull, dull, dull.
Supporting Characters: 05/20
Katzenberg. Leave the Indians alone. They’ve suffered enough.
Honestly, with a different score the movie might just have been salvageable.
FINAL SCORE: 34%
NEXT UPDATE: 12 April 2018
NEXT TIME: So next review falls on Ms Mouse’s birthday so we’re going to be jointly reviewing a movie of her choice. I’ve no idea what she’s going to settle on but…