'Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron' (2002): A Beautifully Rendered Bore/Grade: C+
Few animated movies have been as visually beautiful, or as misguided and dull, as Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. Much like The Lion King (1994), it tells the epic story of a titular animal hero who experiences a journey of great hardship, loss, internal conflict, and ultimately victory. However, unlike that Disney classic, it lacks talking animals, an idea its filmmakers seem sorrowfully afraid to put trust in, and also lacks any compelling human characters. Like a well-made slice of cheesecake, it looks real pretty, without any real substance underneath.
The tale follows Spirit, a young stallion in the old west, from his birth, through his upbringing, to his capture by human soldiers, to ultimately finding his way back to his herd. It's a pretty straightforward story, told with a marvelously detailed eye for landscaping. Every pebble, every blade of grass has so much fine texture that you feel like you could reach through the screen and touch it. Combined with the 2:35 panoramic aspect ratio, you really feel the sheer size of the wilderness. Whether roaming with Spirit through the fields he calls home, or trekking across the desert with an Indian named Little Creek (Daniel Studi), who helps him escape the aforementioned soldiers. I can see how, much like Lion King, it would've looked evermore impressive in a theater, with Hans Zimmer's lush score as the grandiose cherry on top.
Additionally, directors Kelly Asbury and Lorna Cook do well in allowing the animals to express themselves through physical gestures, expressions, and sounds. As a viewer on the autism spectrum, it was incredibly easy for me to tell what each horse was thinking without them saying a word.
That's about where the positives stop here. Writers John Fusco and Michael Lucker flip-flop between just letting Spirit showing us what he feels and relying on narration by Matt Damon. This is made more confusing precisely because none of the animals talk, yet the narration is from Spirit's perspective. It's a bizarre choice that could've been fixed by having the narration be more omniscient, or trusting the audience would be able to follow the events onscreen.
I also don't remember any of the human characters. It's a little scary when those who can't talk emerge with more personality than those who can. Who is Little Creek? Who is The Colonel (James Cromwell, as gruff as ever)? We learn the historical context of these people, as the film takes place in the midst of the industrialization of the Old West, but that does not equal a fully realized person. Consequently, I was almost utterly bored throughout much of the second and third acts.
Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron is ultimately a very mediocre mess of a film. I imagine many of my generation grew up enamored by the animation and grand storytelling, and if so, good for them. It's for these same reasons that I can't imagine it would bore most kids nowadays. However, I'd advise to steer them towards DreamWorks titles with more fleshed-out characters and thematic sustenance, such as Shrek 2 (2004) or The Road to El Dorado (2000). This is nowhere near their best effort.