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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Saturday, May 25, 2002

'Spirit' animation spoiled by lame dialogue, songs

Movie Showtimes

By Christy Lemire
The Associated Press

Dreamworks via Associated Press

OK, so the gimmick with the animated Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron is that the horses don't talk.

They whinny and neigh and nuzzle each other to communicate, unlike those pesky, loquacious Disney animals.

That's fine. I can accept that. In a world of cloying cartoon cutesiness, it's a fresh approach.

But Spirit, the Wild West stallion who leads his herd, thinks human thoughts, as voiced by Matt Damon in overly wistful tones.

That's just wrong. Either go all the way with the non-talking horse motif, or don't. He should either be Mr. Ed, or he should be mute.

Yanking us back and forth is jarring and condescending, as if the filmmakers assumed that children couldn't interpret for themselves what Spirit and his equine friends are thinking when they look at each other with glee or fear or longing.

Example: Cavalry men chase Spirit, rope him and drag him to the ground. Spirit's mother sees this and tries to help him, but he grunts at her to run away. She does so, reluctantly.

Then we hear him think: "I was scared. I didn't know what was going to happen to me. But at least my mother and the rest of the herd were safe."

Well, duh. The animation is vivid enough that Spirit's feelings could have been expressed visually.

The animation, which combines hand-drawn images with computer technology, probably will enrapture children, but scary stuff happens to Spirit that may be too intense for young kids to handle.

When Spirit is tied to a post at the cavalry fort and denied food and water because he wouldn't let the colonel (voiced by James Cromwell) break him, he looks up at the starry sky and thinks, "My heart galloped through the skies that night, back to the herd."

That's one of many groaners from screenwriter John Fusco, who wrote the scripts for 1988's Young Guns and Young Guns II two years later.

And if Spirit can think human thoughts, couldn't he have picked someone less annoying than Bryan Adams to perform the songs on his soundtrack? Bon Jovi maybe, or even Neil Diamond?

Every poignant moment achieved by first-time directors and longtime animators Kelly Asbury and Lorna Cook is ruined by the scratchy pop sounds of Adams, the Kingston, Ont., native who wrote eight new songs for the film.

And there are some undeniably touching scenes, like when Spirit is born, when he frolics as a colt with his mother and when he flirts with his girlfriend. (She doesn't think human thoughts as far as we can tell, though she does resemble Lisa Kudrow.)

While most humans are depicted as greedy, soulless frontiersmen, a few show compassion. Spirit befriends a young Lakota brave, Little Creek (voiced by Daniel Studi), who initially tries to ride him, but learns to appreciate the beauty of his wild nature.

Some of their moments together have a real sweetness and charm. But it's only a matter of time before Adams pipes up again with an intrusive ditty about the horse being a wounded soldier.