Dreaming of Dreamworks – Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002) Review

Rating: 5/10

Plot: In the gorgeous plains of the old west, a stallion named Spirit roams free with his herd. He loves and protects his herd day in and day out. One day, a group of humans kidnap Spirit and bring him to an army outpost where they aim to break him into an army horse. Spirit allies with a fellow captive, a Lakota boy named Little Creek, and they manage to escape. However, Spirit is just as quickly wrangled up by the village’s tribesmen. While they’re much more kind to Spirit, he wrestles with trusting them and wants nothing more than to be set free and go back home.

Breakdown: Before I get to the actual movie, let’s talk about movies that have or were meant to have “silent” characters. It takes a lot of talent to pull off silent characters, because we have to gauge how they’re reacting, what they’re thinking and what they’re trying to ‘say’ all through body language. (Unless the character can/does write down their dialogue, which is a different pool to swim in.) You have an amazing opportunity in animation with this because you can manipulate the facial expressions, motions and environments as much as you want.

Take Disney’s Dinosaur, for example. While the film is praised for its imagery and animation, it is largely criticized for its lackluster and dull story with forgettable characters. Several other critics noted that the characters sounded way too modern. As one critic mentioned, they sounded like “mallrats,” and the way the dinosaurs spoke and interacted with each other took what was originally a promising movie and made it take a “nose-dive.” I found the movie a bit more tolerable but I can definitely see why that movie gets such flak in that regard.

Originally, Dinosaur was meant to be darker, more documentary-like and have no dialogue. According to the Wiki,

“The film was originally supposed to have no dialogue at all, in part to differentiate the film from Universal Pictures’ The Land Before Time (1988) with which Dinosaur shares plot similarities. Eisner insisted that the film have dialogue in order to make it more “commercially viable.” A similar change was also made early in the production of The Land Before Time, which was originally intended to feature only the voice of a narrator.”

It seems Eisner wasn’t really wrong, because the movie made back twice its budget. However, would the movie be more fondly remembered as a classic if we got the darker, more serious dialogue-free movie? Land Before Time was good with dialogue – would it have been better or worse without it? Does it moreso depend on the story and if it lends itself to being dialogue-free?

“But Twix, children are too stupid to understand the subtle nuances of mostly dialogue-free movies. They need constant jibber jabber in order to keep their attention and understand what’s happening.”

To which I respond, “What the hell is 4Kids doing here?”

This argument baffles my mind. Kids are too stupid to understand stories told without dialogue? Children, who are very underdeveloped verbally and start out learning things about life and people through body language and expressions since they can’t understand language (well), are too stupid to get movies that don’t have dialogue or barely have dialogue? Just…what?

I can understand that keeping a child’s attention through a mostly dialogue-free movie would be a challenge anyway, but….well, that’s the challenge. Isn’t it the sign of a true piece of quality when you can have something that both keeps a kid’s attention and tells a good story without needing to shovel a bunch of dialogue into their ears?

Take Wall-E, which, while not being dialogue-free, is very minimal on the dialogue, especially when compared to other animated movies. There are many scenes of silence and allowing the scenery and expressions to convey the story to us.

Ironically, while this decision was largely an artistic one, it was noted by Roger Ebert that, due to Wall-E’s use of silence and lack of dialogue, it would actually appeal to a wider audience because it would cross language barriers and appeal to adults and children alike.

Wall-E is considered a modern masterpiece in sci-fi and animation, and made nearly three times its budget in the box office.

The reason I’m talking about all this is because 1) It’s really interesting and 2) Spirit was always described to me as a mostly dialogue-less movie, and I’ve seen it praised critically for the fact that the horses don’t talk.

However, while the horses don’t talk, the humans do, which I’m perfectly fine with, to be honest, because it’s more realistic for them to talk. What I’m not so fine with is the fact that Spirit has narration running throughout the entire movie, which basically means he’s both ‘talking’ to us anyway, and the movie’s kinda cheating. Plus, his narration is not very well written and points out the obvious a lot.

For instance, mid-way through the movie, Spirit has grown to dislike humans because the colonel of the local US army unit essentially tortured him in order to ‘break’ him so he could be used as an army horse. He manages to escape with the help of a captive Lakota man named Little Creek, who takes Spirit in.

Lakota has his own horse, a mare named Rain, who loves him and plays around with him. Spirit makes a lot of surprised and confused expressions as he stares at them playing, which conveys to the audience that Spirit doesn’t understand why a horse would be so welcoming, playful and loving to a human – considering his experiences with humans to this point has been entirely terrible.

However, narration from Spirit verbally conveys what we can easily see in the animation. It ruins the scene because it has to dumb it down by outright telling us what Spirit’s thinking at the time, which is weird, because I can guarantee if this was a talking horse movie, this scene would probably be kept silent so that Spirit could later question this situation outright to Rain, which can also be done without dialogue.

The narration can simultaneously be pretentious and intrusive. The first night after Spirit’s capture, he looks up to the stars and quietly stares. We then fade to where his herd is and see his mother staring at the same sky. We can interpret this as meaning that Spirit misses his herd, his freedom and his mother. Likewise, his mother misses him as well and is worried about his safety, all the while they’re connected and separated by the wide night sky. However, before the fade transition, we get narration stating “My heart galloped through the skies that night. Back to my herd, where I belonged. And I wondered if they missed me as much as I missed them.”

I nearly had to pause when I heard the line “My heart galloped through the skies that night.” I really can’t decide if it’s pretentious in a juvenile way or just corny.

A nearly great scene is when Spirit is getting captured. His mother starts to scale a rock face to help him out, but Spirit whinnies in desperation, clearly telling his mother to take the herd and leave. The camera is close to Spirit’s face as he pleads with his mother, who is clearly devastated, but realizes that he’s right. His sacrifice will be for nothing if they all get caught.

This works perfectly, until narration, again, has to dumb it down and straight out say “I was scared, and I had no idea what was going to happen to me, but at least the herd was safe.” I only give this scene props because the narration comes immediately after his mother has already left, so the scene is almost undamaged.

Not to mention that the narration is done by Matt Damon, and you can’t not hear Matt Damon. I’m perfectly fine with Matt Damon as an actor, in fact I quite like his work, but I find him to be a terrible voice actor. His voice is fine – it’s the fact that Matt Damon doesn’t seem to be good at acting through his voice alone, which is much more common than you’d think.

That’s why a lot of big-time animated movies with cast lists loaded down with celebrities tend to falter in the voice acting department. I can’t stress how different voice acting is from stage acting. It’s the same concept, but an entirely different world.

Damon just sounds bored throughout his entire narration. He’s missing his herd – bored. He’s charmed by Love Interest – bored. He’s scared after getting captured – bored. He can put so much more charm and emotion into his voice, he’s just choosing not to.

I’m very tempted to edit this movie from start to finish and mute any moments where there’s narration besides the very start and the ending. I can tell just from the way the movie is directed and animated that this could work much better if the narration was gone.

Movies with minimal dialogue don’t just rely on body language, facial expressions and the environments to convey tones and messages, however – they also rely on music. Who do we have for Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron? Hans Zimmer for the orchestral score, and several songs by….Bryan Adams. I see someone spun the ‘Random 80’s Pop Musicians we can use in our soundtrack’ wheel animated movies love to use.

I like a few Bryan Adams songs, and I find his voice to be good, but his music here is, for lack of a better term, distracting. It’s not bad, it’s just that it doesn’t add to scenes most of the time – it takes things away.

We got our first taste of one of his songs for this soundtrack when Spirit is free and growing up, enjoying life with his herd. This song, like a lot of grand ‘whoo life is great’ scenes, is fine, but forgettable.

Then we get another song when Spirit is being hauled back to the army camp, which comes off like a poorly edited fanvid. That’s not Bryan Adams’ fault and moreso the fault of the editors and director, but it’s still distracting.

Then we get ‘Get Off My Back’ when Spirit is being ‘broken’ by the soldiers in the corral, and that song just left me feeling pulled in two directions in regards to tone. One minute you want me to feel all sad and worried about Spirit’s situation, then you have this scene with music meant to convey that Spirit’s being kickass and not allowing anyone to ride him. It’s supposed to be triumphant, but then it’s immediately followed by Spirit tied to a post and starved and deprived of water for three days before finally fully being ‘broken’ by the colonel.

This scene would’ve worked a lot better if you had a song that was more about determination and never giving up rather than aiming for being kickass and cocky to all those who dare challenge Spirit. You’d have a scene about a brave, determined being finally wavering in his resolve and faltering rather than a cocky hothead running out of steam.

If they needed comic relief at that point in the movie, they had it just a scene prior where Spirit was being groomed by the blacksmith. They weren’t aiming for breaking him at that point. He was just being trimmed and shoed. Spirit was rather funny in how he was able to keep weaseling his way out of constraints to hit the blacksmith. They even had him basically suspended with ropes by all four of his legs and he still managed to clock him.

Even that scene has a drastic tonal shift because we go from Spirit beating the blacksmith again to the colonel commanding Spirit be broken in the corral.

One of the notes that a critic had that was listed in the Wiki page said the movie would have benefited from a comic relief character, and uh, I have to say, no. Just…no. Comic relief characters are already difficult enough to do properly without making them just obnoxious intrusions into an otherwise good story, but I feel like this movie in particular would suffer from a comic relief character. The main characters already have it in them to do mild comedy scenes, just be better at it.

The next Adams song is at the tail end of the second act when Spirit gets captured again and believes his love interest is dead. On a long, somber train ride through the snow, we get a long, somber song. It’s very hard to me to tell if this scene works. The animation is all very overly dramatic and the song is also overly melancholy. It’s one of those scenes where the movie is obviously doing its damnedest to make you feel bad. He even starts hallucinating his herd as snow horses.

The final song is the finale song, and it’s triumphant song. I honestly can’t even remember how it goes, but I remember it’s triumphant.

As for Zimmer’s score, it’s alright. It’s fitting and decent, but it’s also completely forgettable, which is a damn shame. This is Hans Zimmer, the same guy who scored The Lion King, The Dark Knight and even The Prince of Egypt. ‘Alright’ is incredibly disappointing coming from him.

I’ve been awfully negative during this whole review, but I want to emphasize that this movie’s not a complete wash. There are numerous things to like. The art and animation more than deserve the praise they’ve been given. These are some of the most realistic animated horses I’ve seen in a major motion picture. They look, sound and move in an incredibly realistic manner. Even the humans have good designs and move fluidly. The backgrounds are also extremely well detailed and nice to look at.

The scenes in which the narration takes a break work pretty well. The characters, while being extremely textbook and dull are likable and believable enough.

I hate that, outside of Spirit, we don’t get a backstory on any of them. Little Creek’s…nice. Rain’s…..nice. If I had to write a character synopsis on either, I’d be lost. I don’t even have much to say about Spirit, in that regard. He’s rebellious, he’s responsible, he’s a bit of a troublemaker. He’s nice. Even the horrible, terrible colonel is alright as an antagonist, even if it is a bit silly how personal his vendetta with Spirit gets. I couldn’t count how many times those two eyed each other.

There is also that Pocahontas-esque racist-ish veil over this movie. The white men are all horrible and all the Native Americans have a damn near magical connection with the land and animals. They don’t learn English through magic wind or anything, but that kind of vibe is there. I’m not ignoring the atrocities that occurred in the Old West, particularly the American Indian Wars – by all means, tell it how it is – but….that’s just it, tell it how it is. You can have a clear line between who the enemies are and who the good guys are without going overboard.

Even his horse is angry.

Not to mention the fact that shoving both sides into those very specific corners basically waters down every human character into boring archetypes. The bad guys are bad guys because they’re mean and don’t respect the land or animals. They don’t have character – they’re less entertaining Captain Planet villains. The good guys are good guys because they’re nice and love the land and animals. They don’t have character – they’re less cheesy Planeteers.

Also, Spirit seems to bring down the whole Transcontinental Railroad by freeing some horses. Oh and, yeah, he sets the forest on fire and probably kills many people, but this is a triumphant moment because he saved his homeland from being impeded upon by a train…..for a few months, I guess, because they’re just gonna, ya know….rebuild.

Then, after a brief chase, Spirit heroically defeats the colonel by……jumping over a very wide chasm. This earns his respect, I guess, they nod at each other and then the army leaves, never to bother the kind Native American people ever again. Talk about a neck-snapping 180. He went from mustache-twirling villain to very reasonable gentleman in about a minute.

Yeah, enduring several days of torture without Spirit breaking, managing to escape as well as help another (human) prisoner escape, and pulling off every ridiculous thing in the finale – that wasn’t enough to get the colonel to respect Spirit and back off. Nah. But that was one sick jump, horse. I tip my hat to you.

Spirit: “I’ll never forget that boy, and how we won back our freedom together.”

Seriously, Dreamworks? After you decide to keep in the part of the story of Exodus about mass baby slaughter, you decide to imply that the American Indian Wars were settled and the white man left the lands and the Native Americans alone because a horse crashed a train, caused a fire, and made a big jump? Was this movie meant to be realistic or not? It seems like they were trying their best for realism until the ending.

Happy endings all around. Spirit gets the girl, he and Rain go free, reunite with his herd and that’s about it.

I went from positive back to negative again, didn’t I? I’m sorry.

This movie just didn’t hit with me much. Truth be told, it’s one of the more boring movies I’ve watched in a long time. It’s like they said ‘let’s make a movie about a horse’ and filled in the blanks from there. I don’t even feel like saying this movie was wasted potential, but I can’t see what could’ve been there.

The movie’s not funny, the action’s alright, but it’s also not all that great, the characters are all flat and not memorable. They try their damnedest to make some heartwarming moments, but I was left feeling rather cold. I only felt a little heartwarmed when Spirit hugged Little Creek and that’s only because it’s a horse giving a hug. That, by default, is insanely adorable.

The conflict is serious, but never goes far enough. They starve Spirit and deprive him of water for three days, which would be life-threatening for humans, though I’m not sure if the same could be said of horses. And what are the effects of that that we see? He licks his lips when he sees the colonel drink water. That’s it. They try to break him by riding him, but he kicks their asses. When he finally is kinda broken, it’s not impacting enough and it only lasts all of two minutes before he’s back to throwing people around and escaping.

Yes, he’s ‘the spirit that could not be broken,’ I get it, but when you give someone that moniker and make it his defining trait, you have to get him as close to broken as humanly possible so we can cheer when he rises back up. Make us truly believe that his spirit can’t be broken no matter what. Even when he believed Rain was dead, it wasn’t as impacting as it should have been because we, as an audience, knew she’d live and that they’d reunite.

I can see how some people would enjoy this movie purely for being an easy-to-watch, pretty movie about horses, and I can definitely see the appeal to children, but it missed the mark for me. Would it have actually been much better if it had no dialogue, or at least had no dialogue/narration on the horses? Maybe. I don’t really know for certain. Maybe I have no idea what I’m talking about. Wouldn’t be the first time.

It’s a shame, really, because I wanted to like this movie. I remember seeing fanvids of it back in the day and it seemed cool. Plus, I love horses, so this should have been my bread and butter, but it just wasn’t.

I feel like I’m going to get some flak for this one because I know that, despite the fact that this movie isn’t really discussed much in animation circles, it’s still near and dear to the hearts of many people. I looked up a handful of reviews of the movie right before posting this, and yeah, all of them were mostly positive. Worst rating I saw was 3.5/5 and even that review barely had anything actually bad to say about it.

If you were able to connect with this movie in a manner in which I wasn’t and saw something there that I couldn’t, more power to you. I’m not criticizing you for liking it, I’m just stating my own opinion.

Recommended Audience: A horse gets shot, but there’s absolutely no blood. There are guns, but they rarely fire. There’s horse ‘torture’ but half of it’s played for laughs and the other half barely qualifies. You don’t even hear anything when they’re destroying their village. No nudity, sex or anything. 6+

Final Notes: In 2017, Spirit earned a spin-off Netflix series…15 years after movie debuted. It’s called Spirit: Riding Free, and from what I’ve read and heard about it, outside of the main character’s parents being Spirit and Rain, the series has nothing to do with this movie and rarely, if ever, shows Spirit. It seems to be successful with four seasons already under its belt, even though it’s barely been a year since it premiered. So if you liked this movie or even if you didn’t, maybe go give that a watch. I might watch it sometime in the future, as I also intend on watching the Disney movie spin-off TV series.

Update: Hey, so I wrote this review five years ago (yeah my uploading practices bite) but a little update on the show. It’s been eight years now and it’s STILL going. (What the heck was I on when I wrote that? It’s been five years since I wrote the review, but the three years since the series came out (when I added the notes), and it has eight seasons. Back to your regularly scheduled jibber jabber.) Which shocked the hell out of me because Netflix drools over that cancellation button.

Not only is the main series still running, but there are apparently now two spin-off series of the main series, a 45 minute long Christmas special AND Dreamworks is releasing a movie version of the TV spin-off in 2021. (Supposedly, there’s even a mobile game of it?)

I couldn’t resist and decided to finally take a peek at the TV series. Apparently, it’s not what I thought it was. I thought this would be a show about a foal or a young horse that kinda took a beat from Disquels and had the original main characters, in this case Spirit and Rain, kinda being side characters as they parent their kid…..but…nope. Spirit and Rain don’t seem to appear (granted, I only looked at the first episode) because they’re acting like this new horse both is Spirit, but isn’t.

It’s a horse that looks and acts exactly like Spirit originally did. The main character human girl, Lucky, even names him Spirit without knowing who his parents are, and Spirit is just a wild horse who isn’t with Spirit or Rain. It’s not even implied that this horse even is the child of Spirit and Rain – I got that from a blurb in the Wiki for the movie. The Wiki page for the series itself doesn’t even mention this.

The show focuses a LOT more on the human characters (of which we have an entirely new cast – no Little Creek or child of Little Creek or anything) than the horses, and the horses are not given voices or narration, which I think works in the show’s favor. This was the second theory I had in speculation of what the show would be with the first being a My Little Pony-esque show where the focus is entirely on the horses and the horses just talk naturally.

So, yeah….this show seems to be just a series about a girl and her horse with the only string tying the two together being that they reused the character model and name of the main character from the movie.

I’m not critiquing the show quite yet, that’ll probably come eventually, but that’s what it appears like to me. Feel free to correct me. Being fair, the quality of the show looks fine, but we’ll have to see how good it is sometime in the future.

Screenshots courtesy of AnimationScreencaps.com


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