A year ago, Jeffrey Katzenberg hit the promotional circuit to support his green baby Shrek, and even before its release, he proclaimed that its successor would be "bold and daring and unlike any other animated movie ever made." If by "bold" he meant "monotonous" and by "daring" he meant "histrionic," the Dreamworks co-honcho was on target. If by "unlike any other animated movie ever made" he meant "just like every other animated movie ever made," he spoke without hyperbole.
After Shrek, an adored and awarded film that is as narratively stimulating as a sitcom and as visually stunning as a video game, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarrongallops a thousand steps in the opposite direction. Notable only for its gimmick -- Spirit is the rare cartoon in which its animals do not speak, except in voice-over, itself a conceit if not a downright cheat -- it's an exceptionally dreary and overwrought bit of work, every bit as imperious as Katzenberg's The Prince of Egypt from 1998.
Spirit tells of wild horses romping across the unsettled West circa 1880, but it's not mere tall tale. Rather, it feels as though it's intended to act as fable, a metaphor for slavery and the Holocaust. If so, it's a daring gambit -- and also a clumsy one, because the filmmakers are unable or unwilling to merge the lightweight (for the children) and the heavy (for their parents). It's just one murky mess -- too dull (and loud) for children, too condescending for adults. Then, what does one expect out of a movie that lets Bryan Adams do all of its heavy lifting? Nothing, actually, aside from a very long music video that comes with its own soundtrack and, soon enough, DVD.
But the promise was there. Buried somewhere beneath the grandiloquent soundtrack is an often-charming and occasionally touching film. The horses, given gender and voice (sort of -- you "hear" words where there are none), have characterization enough to render them engaging. But the filmmakers, Katzenberg chief among them, have so little faith in the audience's ability to keep pace with a story in which not much happens that they deaf and dumb you to death. Every incident -- every scene -- is punctuated with a Bryan Adams song that underscores what we've seen or a Hans Zimmer melody that recalls Bruckheimer by way of Bernstein. It's The Magnificent Seven hopping a ride on Con Air. Spirit's too scared to be contemplative, too cowardly to be quiet, and so the magical or memorable moments -- the birth of the horse, the "death" of a mare, the reunion of old friends -- are mundane and laughable. It even resembles a 1980s hair-metal video in places; the lightning strikes illuminating a pitch-black screen seem to signal the arrival of David Coverdale.
The entire operation seems contrived to compensate for a story that never evolved beyond its initial pitch. It's less a screenplay (by John Fusco, author of The Babe and Thunderheart) than an outline, incapable of withstanding any weight. The film is never subversive or smart enough to warrant its metaphors. Either they're accidental (breaking a horse, then a human, by lashing it to a post and starving it) or foisted upon us without subtlety or insight. One scene, in which Spirit and other horses are being transported to a camp of railroad workers in the dead of winter, looks like something lifted from every Holocaust film. Oh, yeah. Kids will love it.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.