Saturday, April 23, 2016

Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (Dreamworks, 2002)

I haven’t talked much about the Academy Award for best animated feature on this blog. Probably because I don’t really care about it that much. Most years, it’s one foregone conclusion, or maybe an interesting race between one or two. Generally, you get a Disney, a Pixar, a Ghibli, one indie/foreign, and one from one of the other American studios. And I always remember the second year it was presented. Ghibli’s entry, Spirited Away, was the destined winner. Disney had two that year, Lilo and Stitch and Treasure Planet, both of which stood a vague, dark horse chance, the former more than the latter. As for the remaining two, it was Ice Age and some dumb horse movie, seat-fillers if ever there were. Well, this is that dumb horse movie. Let’s see if I misjudged it.

HORSES!

HORSES!

AND MORE HORSES!

IT’S SPIRIT: STALLION OF THE CIMARRON!



I want to address voice acting first in this one. I know I usually save it for later, but we need to lead with this. MATT DAMON SHOULD NOT NARRATE MOVIES. I called him out for his vocal blandness in the Titan A.E. review, and he actually fares worse here. The story is a Black Beauty style bildungsroman, a wild mustang is taken from his herd, and passed from owner to owner, never losing his fire for independence. And I really expected the horses to talk to each other. They don’t. They’re still fairly anthropomorphized in their faces and personalities, but they don’t talk. Instead, the film is narrated by Damon, playing the voice of the main horse reflecting on his past. This means that he is never in the moment, always looking back on it. And that means he is BORING AS HELL.

Which is a shame, because it’s actually quite a good story. They wisely gave the horse only two humans to deal with, which keeps the movie from being cluttered. There’s the Army colonel who forcibly tries to tame him, and a Lakota Native American who eventually befriends him. All the other humans are faceless entities, directly or indirectly related to those two. The Colonel is never given a name, and I seem to recall the Lakota’s name being mentioned by a friend of his, but it wasn’t a big deal. This movie is completely horse-centered, and I love it.

Sadly, Monocle Horse gets little characterization.

Which is why it’s a shame that Damon’s flat, anemic narration brings it down. With nothing to latch onto, performance-wise, we’re left with just a generic white guy voice, reading narration that was not really essential to the story. We get all the plot and character from the story itself, we don’t need Damon to pop in every few minutes and go “I was really sad about that.” The remainder of the cast is some solid character actors, which you know is my preference. James Cromwell and Daniel Studi play our main humans, with Charles Napier and Michael Horse as their understudies, I guess. And hey, props again for hiring Native actors for Native characters. Always appreciated.

Visually, it’s another marvel. Dreamworks has really been nailing the look of things. They toned down the CGI a bit in this one, using it mainly for “event” moments, like a train crash and a canyon chase, as well as water effects and such. This is vastly preferable to using it for, you know, just stuff that they’re picking up. Looking at you, El Dorado. If I had one complaint, it would be the horses, which seems huge, but it’s not. Their legs just look a little wonky if they’re doing anything but standing still, and while I get that they needed forward-facing eyes for the sake of facial expressions, the eyebrows were a bit much.

"Cut that mane. No one on this base gets fancier hair than me."

Speaking of “a bit much”, there’s the soundtrack. Mostly generic soundtrack music, or generic Americana ballads, but there’s two completely random rock songs that sound terrible, and remove you from the movie in a completely weird way.

This one’s a strong recommend. Damon is nonessential to the max, but the movie is still a lot of fun. Yeah, it’s a big, cheesy sweeping Americana Western, but hey, sometimes that ain’t bad.

Dreamworks went CGI soon after this, which was a bit of a box office disappointment, but they did have one last attempt at throwing everything at the wall, and that’s what we’ll cover next.

Bit on the nose there, soundtrack.

ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS

* Several sources, including probably the credits, list the horse as being named “Spirit”, but that doesn’t happen in the film. If it does, I missed it. The Lakota guy says that he’s a “spirit that can’t be broken”, but that’s as close as it gets.

* Shrek won the Oscar the first year it was presented. Over Monsters Inc. I don’t throw around the term “national shame”, but...

* Disney did not win the Oscar until 2013 for Frozen, which was a good enough film, but thankfully came out in a low competition year.

* The strongest year for the award was 2009. Up, the winner, was heavily favored, but the other competitors were Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Princess and the Frog, and The Secret of Kells, all of which could have pulled it off.

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