screenplay by John Fusco
directed by Kelly Asbury and Lorna Cook
by Walter Chaw Earning major points for its revisionist understanding of the impact the rail had on the spoiling of the West (briefly positing its equine hero as one part Burt Lancaster from The Train and one part William Blake), DreamWorks' return to cel (albeit computer-assisted) animation is the surprisingly dark and unintentionally twisted Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. The film is an endlessly disquieting Oedipal construct in which Spirit's absent-from-pre-birth father is the former king of a herd of wild horses, the mantle of which the virile Spirit, with his mother doe-eyed at his side (!), assumes to the tune of a newly-penned anthem from dinosaur Canuck rocker Bryan Adams. I waited with baited breath to see how mama's foal Spirit would break his new Oedipal split (hot filly Rain) to "Jocasta," but the picture fumbles the potent moment with a coy mane flip and a sexy-quick gallop.
Spirit cannot be tamed, it seems--certainly not by an evil U.S. Army captain (voiced by James Cromwell) and his regiment of horse-subjugating soldiers. In another eyebrow-raising touch probably not premeditated, all of the beaten-down horses in the white soldier's stable are black (Spirit, note, is sort of yellow). When a Lakota prisoner named Little Creek (Daniel Studi) is brought into the fort and subjected to the same kind of Bridge on the River Kwai treatment given Spirit, the two effectively bond and escape together into the idealized western wilderness.
Redolent with the kind of ultra-liberal racism that makes Native Americans pure as the driven snow (it's called "noble savage syndrome," and there's something very wrong with it) and white men stationed at the edge of frontier America buffoons, spoilers, and otherwise low down snakes, Spirit suggests that Caucasians hated and mistreated their horses while Native Americans, as movie Indians will, live in perfect harmony with animals and nature. The strange implication being, of course, that the Indians' horses are broken and in servitude by choice--never mind Little Creek's abortive attempts to engage in the same kind of spirit-breaking (pun probably intended) as the White Man.
What gets lost in all this self-congratulatory tree-hugging is the logical conclusion that the success of White Men is most likely based on their tenacity and ambition, and that the ultimate failure of the Native Americans is grounded in their unfortunate adherence to the simpering hippie stereotypes of their guilty modern champions. Conclusions that only the most virulent and simplistic of racists would embrace are furthered by this dim-witted leftwing prancing about. Spirit is a product of political correctness gone mad. It has a couple of courtship scenes steamy and suggestive (including a third scene where Spirit "spoons" Rain) but scored in a way as to suggest sweetness and innocence. Foaming stallions neighing and blowing around long-lashed mares turning hindquarters demurely to erstwhile steeds, however, are perhaps not the most easily neutered symbols. The result of the images, the logical inconsistencies, the paternalism, and the bittersweet understanding that American Indians are doomed, the unspoiled wilderness is doomed, Spirit's new buffalo pals are doomed, and horses are saved only through their suggested willingness to be "broken," is a film that says so much more than it means to.
Even in the "so it's come to this" Bryan Adams soundtrack (featuring cues so insipid and expository that they feel a little like home-grown community theatre compositions), there seems a lesson in Romanticist melancholia: What innocence we've lost on our way to cultural maturity, it says, and maybe even, thank God for it. Spirit is, in other words, a great children's film: it looks great, its action sequences are exciting, and it has a dark undercurrent so chill that the Brothers Grimm for once rest contentedly in their graves. Originally published: May 24, 2002.