Asa Daniels, Campus Carrier online editor
In 2002, DreamWorks Animation released Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, a coming-of-age story about a young stallion. He leaves his homeland when he is captured by wranglers and ends up in an American army fort during the Indian Wars. From here, he escapes with the help of a young Native American, Little Creek. I will spare the spoilers beyond this point, but the film is an endearing work of animation for a number of reasons.
For starters, it is one of the last hand-drawn animated films from DreamWorks Animation, which has since taken up mostly 3D animated films. To be fair, the movie uses a combination of 2D and 3D animation, but in the heart and soul, it is largely hand-drawn in character.
The film uses very realistic depictions of horses, the only major alteration being the addition of eyebrows to the horses. This was done for a purely utilitarian purpose: providing emotion to the horses. Having this, it is much easier for the audience to understand what Spirit is feeling, especially since there is limited use of dialogue on the part of the horses: they neigh and use body language like real horses to communicate.
The only consistent piece of dialogue by Spirit is a narration by Matt Damon, which in my opinion could be cut without limiting the film in any way, save for a bit of opening dialogue which need not necessarily be Spirit’s. Whatever the body language and facial expressions can’t convey, the songs by Bryan Adams provide ample context and emotion.
While some may argue that the songs are dated and cheesy, they serve a functional purpose as Spirits’ feelings and are very well performed, becoming one of the most memorable parts of the movie. The soundtrack also features moving, powerful pieces by none other than Hans Zimmer, including the main title that opens the film.
Another important part of Spirit lies just under the story: America. The film is filled with themes of freedom, youth, courage, and love. Spirit is a very literal metaphor for freedom, as he rides the planes of the Cimarron and fights to be free from human captivity. He is also symbolic of youth, with his confrontational and sometimes brash personality getting him into trouble. Throughout the film, he learns to reign in (no, the pun was not intended) these feelings, showing a maturity of his character. At the same time, he learns a lot about courage, fighting for himself and for others, and doing what he believes is right and just. Lastly, he has a lifelong love for his homeland, wishing to defend it and to share it with those he loves in kind. Freedom, youth, courage and love – these are words many use to describe or connect to America itself.
While all of those ideas are connected to Spirit, if we decide to go down another level, we realize that Spirit’s freedom is coupled with the general historical context of the film: America in the Indian Wars. At the same time Spirit is a symbol of freedom, the audience is served scenes from a darker, more violent time in American history, one that many view as the suppression of the freedom of Native Americans.
This juxtaposition is not front and center in the film – Spirit’s freedom is the main plot – but nonetheless it is a powerful message, showing that Old Glory and its loyal soldiers in blue are not always the image of freedom.
And so, DreamWork’s “Spirit” is more than just the story of Spirit’s freedom, or the story of the American West told by a horse rather than on the saddle of one – it is a story of America’s relationship with freedom, a very intangible and yet very powerful concept which is key to our national consciousness. The film’s opening dialog, perhaps the only time Damon’s work is most appreciative, says something very telling: “Whether that west was won or lost in the end, you’ll have to decide for yourself.” We too must make a decision about freedom in the same manner. Perhaps not whether it was lost or won, but rather, what freedom means in our own lives and the greater context of our national history.