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Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron Blu-ray + DVD Combo Pack Review

Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002) movie poster Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron

Theatrical Release: May 24, 2002 / Running Time: 83 Minutes / Rating: G

Directors: Kelly Asbury, Lorna Cook / Writer: John Fusco

Voice Cast: Matt Damon (Spirit), James Cromwell (The Colonel), Daniel Studi (Little Creek), Chopper Bernet (Sgt. Adams), Jeff LeBeau (Murphy, Railroad Foreman), John Rubano (Soldier), Richard McGonagle (Bill), Matt Levin (Joe), Adam Paul (Pete), Robert Cait (Jake), Charles Napier (Roy), Meredith Wells (Little Indian Girl), Zahn McClarnon (Little Creek's Friend), Michael Horse (Little Creek's Friend), Don Fullilove (Train Pull Foreman)

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Shrek was the film that put DreamWorks Animation on the map, a domestic hit bigger than any of Pixar's first four films and bigger than any animated film since The Lion King. The 2001 fairy tale comedy's success quickly redefined DreamWorks as a studio you could turn to for irreverence, parody, adult-friendly gags, and franchises. The company has evolved from those trademarks, becoming more like Pixar in animation quality and belief in storytelling. Look past Shrek, though,
and you'll find still another DreamWorks Animation, a young company finding its way that had not yet committed to comedy or computers, one that you might view as a successor to Don Bluth as the rare animation house to try to compete with Disney.

Pixar comparisons were inevitable off the bat since DreamWorks' very first film was Antz, a CGI 'toon that bore much resemblance to A Bug's Life, a far more colorful, entertaining, and profitable film released eight weeks later. DreamWorks' follow-up effort, traditionally-animated religious musical adventure The Prince of Egypt, was decidedly more like Disney Animation's works of the time. Narrowly eclipsing the $100 million mark domestically and winning the Best Original Song Oscar, Prince performed comparably to one of Disney's post-Lion King late-'90s efforts like Hercules or The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

DreamWorks' third film, 2000's The Road to El Dorado, floundered at the box office, recouping just $50.9 M on a $95 M production budget. The studio fared better with the Aardman Animations-produced claymatian hit Chicken Run and then Shrek the following summer.

Around this time, animation was changing. With Ice Age, Blue Sky and Fox discovered computer animation success wasn't an exclusive club. Meanwhile, Disney was trying to figure out if audiences would still embrace films made with old-fashioned hand-drawn animation. After Lilo & Stitch seemed to answer "yes", the studio's next three releases, ranging from unprofitable (Brother Bear) to downright disastrous (Treasure Planet, Home on the Range) suggested otherwise.

As Disney quickly abandoned the medium they had long relied upon, to the dismay of some passionate fans, other studios were doing the same only without the same legacy or uproar. DreamWorks had to see the writing on the wall after Shrek grossed more than their first three films combined. By then, the company had two more traditionally animated films deep into production they would finish. The first was Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.

Released shortly after Spider-Man and Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones and right before Scooby-Doo and Lilo & Stitch, Spirit was a commercial disappointment, grossing $73.3 M domestically and less than $50 M overseas on a substantial $80 M production budget. Still, it drew good reviews and earned DreamWorks its second Best Animated Feature Oscar nomination, following debut winner Shrek.

Spirit and Little Creek escape an Army camp in DreamWorks Animation's "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron."

Spirit has its admirers. Unfortunately, I can't find any of the good qualities they see in this film.

Spirit is a horse of the Old West. He tells us via character narration from Matt Damon that his story is a true one. Apart from that sporadic voiceover and Bryan Adams songs serving the same function, Spirit does not speak. You might think that's a welcome departure from the norm, where talking animals make up the bulk of American animation. It is not. The sight of horses neighing and whinnying at one another, though used in moderation, is way worse than even the most infantile cartoon dialogue endured elsewhere.

That design is not an insurmountable problem. The weak story and characters around them, however, are. The screenplay by John Fusco, whose other credits include Young Guns, Hidalgo, and The Forbidden Kingdom, is the most flagrant exhibition of white guilt encountered in a family film.

After waking and taunting some cowboys, Spirit is caught by them and trapped. The unanimously wicked white men are led by an Army colonel (voiced by James Cromwell) whom Spirit likens to a rattlesnake. The arrogant Colonel tries his darndest to break the wild mustang, but Spirit shows him up. On that point, Spirit is a jerk. He has no qualms about injuring any human who stands in his way, but we're supposed to sympathize with him, for he's this wild, wise, majestic creature.

You can argue that the horse's reactionary violence doesn't compare to the hatred inside the hearts of the Colonel and his men, who prescribe the same punishment to Spirit and Little Creek (Daniel Studi), a Lakota Indian they capture and treat like an animal. Each is tied to a post and deprived of food and water for days. The Indian and horse manage to make a great escape, freeing other captured, branded horses in the process.

Little Creek owns a female horse (we know she's a girl because her ears and nostrils are pink, her eyelashes more pronounced, and her curves more feminine) who functions as obvious love interest for Spirit. There's also some adventure tossed in because, well, this thing has got to reach feature length somehow (it runs just 76 minutes before the end credits scroll).

Love is in the air when Spirit means Rain, a lady horse voiced by no one.

In light of the limited dialogue, the film has its music do the heavy lifting, a tactic that does it no favors. The 1980s-sounding score, improbably the work of Hans Zimmer, whose African-flavored work on The Lion King remains a benchmark for animation, dates the movie more than it should, assuming an easy listening sound in places.
Adams, meanwhile, seemingly DreamWorks' response to Phil Collins' role on Tarzan, offends more noticeably with his on-the-nose tunes. For example, the song "Get Off My Back" prominently accompanies a sequence of Spirit resisting attempts to break him. Without revealing the ending (which is by no means unpredictable), let me lament that the ridiculous practice even spoils an ending that should be uplifting by once again voicing the obvious.

Artistic in a manufactured way, Spirit has the power both to win over animal lovers and put kids to sleep. Injecting malice into westward expansion, the movie offends with the broad strokes of its storytelling. It also falls short of its marks in all the areas that regularly allow animated cinema to shine. Its few corny comedy gags are just as lacking as the music, characterization, action, and romance. The 2.40:1 visuals, which make obvious, extensive use of CGI from the opening scene on, are ambitious (as when blowing snowflakes assume the shape of wild horses on the move), but possess neither the charm of Disney's 2D nor the wonder of Pixar's cinematic compositions.

Many animated features get a pass from critics and from members of the public who judge them less harshly as children's fare. While I can appreciate that Spirit does not rely on the most conventional, tried and true elements (like wisecracking talking animals or a kid-friendly tone), I really can't credit it in any other way or classify it as anything but one of the biggest creative disappointments I've encountered in my many years of watching and critiquing animated films.

Spirit is no longer one of the number of early DreamWorks cartoons yet to grace Blu-ray Disc. Twelve years after it was released to theaters, it reached the format last week in the Blu-ray + DVD Combo Pack reviewed here.

Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron Blu-ray + DVD Combo Pack cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

2.40:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
Blu-ray: 5.1 Dolby TrueHD (English), Dolby Digital 5.1 (Castilian, Dutch, Flemish, French, German, Latin American Spanish)
DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French), Dolby Surround 2.0 (English, Spanish)
BD Subtitles: English, French, Castilian, Dutch, Flemish, French, German, Latin American Spanish; Movie-only: English SDH
BD Extras Subtitled in English, Castilian Spanish, Dutch, French, German, Latin Spanish
DVD Subtitles: English, French, Spanish; Some DVD Extras Subtitled; Closed Captioned
Release Date: May 13, 2014 / Suggested Retail Price: $14.99
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (BD-50 & DVD-9) / Blue Eco-Friendly Keepcase
Still available on DVD and Amazon Instant Video
Previously released as Widescreen DVD, Full Screen DVD, VHS (November 19, 2002)

VIDEO and AUDIO

The Blu-ray's 2.40:1 picture is as excellent as today's technology allows, which is pretty darn excellent. That's not terribly surprising, given the film is just twelve years old and that it couldn't have posed problems as it surely exists in digital form. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack also impresses, grabbing your attention on a number of occasions with high-impact effects. Even if, like me, you're not crazy about the music, you've got to appreciate its presentation here.

James Baxter teaches us how to draw Spirit. Looking like Not So Slim Shady, digital supervisor Doug Cooper discusses the mix of mediums used to animate the film. Bryan Adams sings words that go with the images of "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The hearty slate of supplements starts with an audio commentary by directors Kelly Asbury and Lorna Cook and producer Mireille Soria. They all speak with such pride about their achievements,
getting into the technical specifics and what went into each scene and the film at large. While they're clearly passionate about the film and the runtime makes it pretty painless and void of lulls, I still can't call listening to this track time well spent.

On the video side, where everything remains in standard definition, we begin with "Learn to Draw Spirit with James Baxter" (13:48). An alumnus of Disney's Renaissance, Baxter takes you through the steps of drawing the title character on which he served as supervising animator. We see of Baxter's drawing pad while a small window shows Baxter talking.

"Animating Spirit" (7:02) discusses the film's blend of traditional hand-drawn and digital animation (a mix Jeffrey Katzenberg chippily calls "tradigital"), as well as the animators' efforts to realistically capture horse movements.

"The Songs of Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron" (9:41) is a promotional featurette celebrating the musical contributions of Hans Zimmer and Bryan Adams, with each man giving us insight into their work.

Cowboys act mean in storyboard form. Matt Damon isn't the only big name asked to voice Spirit; the great Hartmut Engler handles those duties for the German language version of the film. Production notes remain a DVD exclusive.

Four scenes are presented in storyboard format (16:51), with optional commentary discussing certain evolutions of the plot. As usual, the partially colored sketches aren't much to see for anyone who's not really into the creative process or dreaming of becoming an animator.

The Blu-ray's extras draw to a close with "International Star Talent" (2:31),
another EPK piece that mentions the star power brought aboard for both the film and its foreign language translations.

Its files carrying 2010 dates, the DVD includes all the same bonus features minus "International Star Talent" and adds 16 screens of production notes, multi-page biographies of 18 cast and crew members, a 2-minute promo advertising Shrek and other DreamWorks 'toons available to own back then, and a DreamWorks Kids section. That DWK section provides access to eight "favorite scenes" (whose, it's unclear) and two simple set top games. "Cimarron Slam" has you navigate over to select villains as they pop up (but not heroes). Helpful hint: all white men are bad and all horses are good! "Mustang Derby" tells you to press the right arrow to help Spirit win what is designed like a carnival horse race, but as far as I can tell, your button-pressing has no effect on the random results. One can't be upset that no effort has been made to adapt these for Blu-ray.

Make sure you only shoot at the evil white men in the DVD's set top game "Cimarron Slam." The DVD's old recycled animated main menu handily bests the Blu-ray's static screen.

The only evident difference between this DVD and the widescreen edition released in 2002 is the loss of DVD-ROM content, something much of the industry abandoned long ago but which DreamWorks still used until recently for printables.

The Blu-ray's static, silent menu offers a wide rendering of the recycled (and kind of strange) cover art. Playback begins automatically following a few minutes of menu inactivity. Par for Paramount, the Blu-ray doesn't resume playback, but does let you set bookmarks on the film. The DVD's more creative main menu illustrates the hand-drawn nature of the production with animated pencil sketches of characters within a full-color backdrop.

No inserts or slipcovers join the two plainly-labeled discs inside the eco-friendly keepcase.

Spirit and Rain find themselves amidst rough rapids in one of the film's obligatory action-adventure sequences.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Few mainstream animated films anger me anywhere near as much as Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. I entered this review assuming I had been too harsh on the film on my first viewing eleven years ago, but found it to be just as frustrating and inferior a production as I remember it.

Obviously, this is not a film I would recommend under any circumstances. DreamWorks' combo pack does deliver a strong feature presentation while retaining a substantial assembly of extras. But I honestly can't think of a single other theatrical animated film I would consider less enjoyable than this one.

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Related Reviews:
Early Noughties Animation: Brother Bear Monsters, Inc. Home on the Range Finding Nemo The Miracle Maker
DreamWorks Animation: Rise of the Guardians Bee Movie Kung Fu Panda The Croods Megamind
2002: Treasure Planet Lilo & Stitch Spirited Away Spider-Man The Ring Catch Me If You Can
War Horse The Young Black Stallion The Last Unicorn Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken
Pocahontas The Fox and the Hound Bambi Squanto: A Warrior's Tale We Bought a Zoo
Directed by Kelly Asbury: Gnomeo & Juliet | Animated by James Baxter: The Lion King Enchanted

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Reviewed May 19, 2014.



Text copyright 2013 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 2002 DreamWorks Animation and 2014 DreamWorks Animation Home Entertainment and Paramount Home Entertainment. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.