DreamWorks Animation is one of the most interesting animation studios out there. When it was founded in 1994 to rival Disney, it has since gone on to make a wide variety of animated films that range in quality. While they have been known more for their computer-animated films, they did dabble a bit with traditional animation with four films before hanging up the cape due to the sad decline of the medium. The third film they made in the medium "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron" is one I've found the most intriguing. Released in 2002, this adventure film is probably one of the most ambitious animated films the studio has ever made and has many moments I feel rival as being among their greatest. It's an animated film I really did enjoy a lot even if it had shortcomings that held it back from becoming one of the best-animated films ever made.
In the 19th century American west, a young stallion named Spirit (inner-monologue by Matt Damon) is foaled to a pack of wild horses. He grows up leading his pack happily in the wilderness until one day, he is lassoed away from his herd by the United States Army under the leadership of the Colonel (James Cromwell) where he is tried to be tamed into another horse used by the military. After the army captures a young Lakota named Little Creek (Daniel Studi), Spirit escapes with the native and is brought to his village where he stays in the village and encounters a female horse named Rain. From there, Spirit embarks on a journey that will change him trying to get back to his herd in the wild.
When watching this film, I could really see the ambition that DreamWorks had while making this. This is such a unique animated film from the studio that stands out from the rest of the films they've made in the past twenty years. The story is easily what I found the most captivating about the film. While the story of an animal separated from his pack and trying to get back home has been told many times before, this film takes a different approach by not having the horses talk and rather have the visuals and expressions communicate how they're thinking and feeling and it's something I adore. I'm always a champion for visual storytelling as it's something that the art of film can do unlike any other art form and this film takes advantage of it. The film takes advantage of its minimalistic dialogue and I do adore that. A lot of credit has to be given to the directors Lorna Cook and the late Kelly Asbury who dug deep and made a story that felt large and mature while having moments that really keep you on your toes including the scene where Spirit and Little Creek escape the army base and a fun climax on the buildings of the Transcontinental Railroad as well as small tender moments where Spirit is shown by Rain the people of the Lakota village and the areas around to convince Spirit that humans aren't always true enemies. I also do appreciate the size and scale of the film though I don't know if it quite earns it as it should compared to their other films like their magnum opus, "The Prince of Egypt". Where the latter doesn't hold back with its punches and shows moments that leave you speechless, I do feel this film falters as it's constrained to go into darker and mature territories that it wants to go into and I was let down by it. The biggest instance where the story falters though is both the narration of Spirit by Matt Damon as well as the songs by Bryan Adams. I found both of them rather distracting as it only showcased what the animation onscreen was presenting us and didn't add anything we didn't already know. I feel if DreamWorks had removed both elements completely, it would've improved the film drastically. With that said, they were at least far better handled than in other animated films like the dreadful "Walking with Dinosaurs" or "Doogal". As far as the animation goes, it's mostly rather beautiful. As previously stated, the film takes advantage of having the visual tell the story and it leads to some very expressive character animation. You could see what every character was thinking and feeling in their head without them talking and it's something that I feel more films should take advantage of. Even the camera tricks including 360 shots were rather impressive for the time. I also found the landscapes especially gorgeous to look at as well and visually striking. With that said, I don't think the computer animation elements have aged all that well especially compared to "The Prince of Egypt" where the entire film has aged so gracefully. Elements like water as well as some of the rocky landscapes have shown their age and look rather off compared to the rest of the world. Though with that said, the rest of the animation has held up phenomenally. Then we have the characters which are a little tricky to talk about given their minimalistic dialogue. Spirit is easily the most captivating character of the film. The character of Spirit is animated by the legendary James Baxter who has been responsible for handling some of the best animation ever crafted in film and he really puts his passion into this project. While watching the film, I could tell that this character is emotionally driven by Baxter's animation rather than Damon's voice, and it's a treat to watch. Spirit has a lot of personality feeling rather annoyed with what he's going through and wanting to get back to his herd while not letting anything stand in his way. The animation is what truly makes this character special in my eyes. I also loved how Rain was driven by the animation as well though and didn't have dialogue at all though her sassy and sweet personality still comes through. I did admire the human characters like Little Foot and the Colonel who make for a good supporting character and antagonist respectively with the former feeling like a good companion character for Spirit trying to fully achieve his goal while the latter is one that while doesn't have any clear motivation and goal, still felt like a menacing presence.
With that said, I still think "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron" is a very impressive animated film. The story is beautiful and rich even if it's slightly held back by constraints, the animation is gorgeous and detailed despite parts aging, and the characters are well fleshed with their minimalistic dialogue even if some needed a bit more development. This is a very good DreamWorks film and certainly one of their more underrated films that I do recommend checking out if you haven't. I think it's a truly unique film from the company and I hope that kind of spirit hopefully continues into the future.