Featured Blu-ray review: Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron
May 12th, 2014
Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron was an early film from DreamWorks Animation. It cost $80 million to make, and likely another $30 million to $40 million to advertise. However, worldwide it barely matched its combined production budget. On the other hand, it earned an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature film. (Granted, it was a soft year for animated films and only three films earning a Tomatometer Score of 80% positive or better: Spirited Away, Lilo and Stitch, and The Wild Thornberrys. The last one didn't even pick up an Oscar nomination.) It has been more than a decade since so maybe it has gotten better with time. Is that the case? And is the Blu-ray worth picking up?
The answer to the first question is no. This movie has not aged well. The opening sequence is meant to inspire a sense of awe in audiences over the animated world. That might have worked originally, but now it just looks out-of-date.
The film begins with a voice-over by Spirit, a horse, as we watch an eagle fly over the old west. The plot starts when we see Spirit born. We watch him grow up, sort of. He's a "spirited" youngster, which gets him in trouble with the elders. He also stares down a herd of bison. Soon he is an adult and the leader of the herd. He shows his leadership by protecting the young from a mountain lion. One night, he sees something new. He sees lights across the horizon and begins to run towards it. What he finds are horses, tied up to a log, as well as strange creatures, humans. When he inadvertently wakes up the humans, they recognize what an amazing specimen he is and give chase. He's faster, and smarter, but when the humans catch up to him near his heard, he runs at the humans to allow his fellow horses to get away. The plan works, but he's captured in the process.
After being dragged for what seems like days, Spirit arrives at an army fort where the Colonel, instructs his men to tame this wild horse. Things go poorly, both for the people trying to break Spirit and for me watching the movie. The Colonel punishes Spirit by withholding food and water for three days. During this time, the army captures a Lakota Indian, Little Creek, who is given the same punishment as Spirit. However, that night one of his fellow Indians throws a knife over the wall and Little Creek is able to grab it. In the morning, the Colonel tries to break Spirit and eventually he does tire him out. However, while Colonel gloats, Spirit catches his breath and throws the Colonel. At the same time, Little Creek cuts his ropes and the pair escape the fort, along with the other army horses.
At first, Spirit plans to go home. Then he see's Little Creek's mare, Rain. (Who doesn't have a voice actor, thus maintaining the near total sausage-fest voice cast.) It's love (?) at first sight and while he's distracted, he's captured by the Lakota. While there he notices how much Rain seems to care for the Lakota. When Little Creek tries to ride Spirit and Spirit attacks him, Rain defends Little Creek. Little Creek decides to use Rain to try and teach Spirit to allow others to ride him. Now Spirit has to decide whether or not he wants to return to his herd, or stay with Rain.
Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron is not as good as its Tomatometer Score would indicate. It is certainly not as good as its Oscar nomination would suggest. It tries to be more serious and more realistic than the usual animated film focused on animals, but this turns out to be a weakness. Because the animals don't talk, we only hear their thoughts through Spirit's narration, but this gimmick doesn't work and it results in a main character that's just not interesting. The writing for the narration is lackluster and so is the performance by Matt Damon. I like Matt Damon as an actor, but this was only the second animated film he provided a voice for, so perhaps that's why the performance here was weak. Or perhaps the poor writing is to blame. Also, because Spirit is the only animal who has an interior monologue, at least one we can hear, there are large gaps in the movie where there should be dialogue and there are songs, usually bad songs. All of these factors combine into a rather dull experience for much of the movie. There are a few good action scenes, but not enough of them to save the film. Additionally, the film wasn't good looking, at least not in its totality. The backgrounds were beautiful for most of the movie, but the combination of traditional and computer animation doesn't work. This does allow for very smooth camera movements through the scenes, but it means the film hasn't aged as well from a technical standpoint.
I really wanted to like this movie, but I just wasn't drawn into it.
There are plenty of extras, but nothing is exclusive to the Blu-ray. Extras begin with an audio commentary track with the two directors, Kelly Asbury and Lorna Cook, as well as one of the producers, Mirelle Soria. Up next is a 14-minute featurette on how to draw a horse with James Baxter, who was the senior supervising animator for Spirit. There is a seven-minute featurette on the combination of traditional and computer animation that went into making the movie. The next featurette is a ten-minute look at the music in the movie. There are 17 minutes of storyboards, with optional audio commentary. Finally, there is a two-minute look at the voice talent, which changed for each market. On a side note, the extras are on non-anamorphic widescreen.
The technical presentation is excellent. While I thought the animation style was outdated, there is nothing wrong with the video transfer. The colors are the highlight of the video, while the blacks are inky deep but never swallow details. It was digitally rendered, so it should come as no surprise that the film has no digital artifacts, while there are also no compression issues. The audio is just as strong with plenty of activity in the surround sound speakers, especially the sub-woofer. (You need this for the sound of the herds running.)
The Blu-ray combo pack costs $15, which is a good deal, especially since it comes with the DVD.
Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron tries to be a more realistic tale about horses, but that was a mistake. There's a reason why so many animated movies about animals have them talk. It makes it easier to tell a story that way. That said, if you liked the movie, it does look great on Blu-ray and even though there are no new extras, the price is good.
Submitted by: C.S.Strowbridge
Filed under: Video Review, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron