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Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2002 1 Jan
Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron

from Film Forum, 05/30/02

Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron is the latest animated adventure from DreamWorks, the studio that produced the memorable Prince of Egypt and Shrek. Critics are again impressed by the abilities of the artists, who work here in a mix of traditional hand-drawn animation and cutting-edge digital work. Horse lovers finally have an animated movie that does justice to the animals. The songs composed by Bryan Adams, whose popularity peaked in the mid-'80s, are drawing mixed but strong reviews. The story follows the misadventures of a wild horse who learns the good and the bad of dealing with human beings; he finds respect and friendship in a Native American who cares for him, but suffers at the hands of the advancing representatives of Western civilization.

Steven D. Greydanus calls the movie "a wonder to behold. I'm particularly impressed by the animation of the horses, which are (as I can personally vouch with my background in illustration) notoriously difficult to draw. The film is also effective in the way it allows the horses to express themselves nonverbally, without turning them into talking cartoon characters. Like Bambi, Spirit is visually eloquent, though musically it's banal."

"The animation has a lovely painterly quality," says a critic for the USCCB "[It's] an engaging tale that's cinematically beautiful to behold. Most big animated films lately have been very sassy, stressing smart-alecky comebacks and wise-cracking talking animals. Not so this gentle yet sometimes cruel film which celebrates the beauty of nature, respect for life, homeland and family."

Holly McClure raves, "Not only is it a visually satisfying movie, but there's a strong message about never letting anyone break your spirit, and about valuing your family and the freedom we have. This is what family entertainment should be." Theresa Zumwalt (Preview) agrees, calling it "a highly entertaining story set in a historical context, that could spark some excellent dialogue between parents and children." And Michael Elliott says, "Spirit's artwork is simplistically stunning. The musical score … matches the film's themes and images with stirring inspirational and patriotic fervor. In addition to the fact that it is completely free of any offensive content … there are any number of spiritual lessons to be found within the story."

But some Christian media critics would not agree that the film is "completely free of any offensive content." Lindy Beam (Focus on the Family) calls the animation spectacular, but adds, "A line from the tale's opening segment provides a telling insight into Spirit's spirit: 'Whether the West was won or lost, I'll leave that up to you to decide.' It turns out to be the biggest rhetorical question ever, because the intended message is clear: White men bad; Indians and animals good. Industrial progress bad; nature good." Likewise, Ted Baehr (Movieguide) argues, "The problem … for people of the Christian faith is that the movie has a Romantic worldview. Jean Jacques Rousseau formulated Romantic philosophy to depose Christian theology. To a large degree, this is the philosophical perspective of the film. The animals and the Indians are noble. The representatives of Western Civilization are mean, cruel, and repressive."

Phil Boatwright agrees that the film is guilty of "reverse bigotry." But he confesses that he is "hooked on horse movies," and says Spirit has joined his list of favorites: "While aimed more at little ones with its color and movement, the stylish animated film has enough intrigue and action to keep accompanying parents from going out of their skulls."

Most mainstream critics are dazzled by the animation, but argue over other aspects. Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) says, "Uncluttered by comic supporting characters and cute sidekicks, Spirit is more pure and direct than most of the stories we see in animation—a fable I suspect younger viewers will strongly identify with. The animals do not speak … and I think that's important to the film's success. It elevates the story from a children's fantasy to one wider audiences can enjoy, because although the stallion's adventures are admittedly pumped-up melodrama, the hero is nevertheless a horse and not a human with four legs."

MaryAnn Johanson (Flick Filosopher) argues that the movie "is so close to being a great film that it can't help but leave you with the bitter aftertaste of what might have been." She praises its animation and storytelling, but adds, "Matt Damon's flat narration … does nothing but needlessly reiterate thoughts and feelings that are already clearly understood, and Bryan Adams' songs are worse, hammering us so that the story's genuine passion gets crushed into phony sentimentality. An unaffected score—one that actually featured some Western twang or Native American rhythms—was all that was needed."

from Film Forum, 06/06/02

At Ethics Daily, two pastors offer differing perspectives on DreamWorks' animated family film, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. Mike Parnell, pastor of Burgaw Baptist Church in Burgaw, N.C., writes, "Spirit is not just a kiddy matinee; it's for adults too. We always believe that our plans and our ways are the best. When we see something that stands in our way, we attempt to subdue it. Spirit symbolizes that which should never be broken—a toughness without apology. Yet there is also a tenderness in Spirit that speaks of freedom as more than license. Like one of Jesus' parables, [the movie] has more depth than many would realize."

Roger Thomas, pastor of Northeast Baptist Church in Atlanta writes, "As a history lesson for children, it is probably as good as it could be, but one has to wonder if children are even involved enough in the story to understand the history being presented. The history is also 'politically correct,' with all the American Indians being virtuous, and all the settlers being villainous. Children and parents alike expect certain things from animated films, and Spirit does not deliver enough of those."