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Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron

DreamWorks Animation (May 24 2002), DreamWorks Home Entertainment (November 19 2002), single disc, 83 mins plus supplements, 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, Rated G, Retail: $19.99

Storyboard:

The story (borrowing just a little from Dumbo, Bambi and The Lion King) follows young Spirit, a wild stallion in the old west. Strong and fast, Spirit grows to be a little too cocky and is eventually captured by a forceful Cavalry colonel intent on breaking the horse’s spirit. Escaping with the help of an Indian brave, the two become friends, especially when Spirit is introduced to a beautiful female steed, Rain. Making for the Indian’s homeland – and freedom – the three encounter a whole hazard of adventures and exciting situations along the way, until they meet again the Cavalry colonel, who has been pursuing them…

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The Sweatbox Review:

DreamWorks’ Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron was a strange experience for me when I saw it earlier this year in the theater. I’d been beating the drum on this thing since the trailer went out on the Shrek DVD and honestly thought it had a great shot at being DW’s second Oscar winner for Best Animated Feature in a row. The opening shot is terrific – a really stunning animation achievement which sets up the rest of the film as something special. Maybe the problem, for me at least, was that the film started with such amazing imagery, leaving the remaining 75 minutes or so struggling to regain the feel of what came before.

When one sees a movie, there’s normally a thrill and you’re overwhelmed by the story and/or visual images. Sometimes, with films that obviously just don’t work, you’re left wanting and feeling distinctly under-whelmed. But with Spirit, I simply found myself feeling kind of just…“whelmed”! Nothing more, nothing less. Just sat there, soaking it up, liking some parts very much indeed. But at the end, I was just left thinking, “Oh, okay”. On seeing the movie again on disc, several points came to me as to why I hadn’t been awed by what I’d seen and heard in the theater. First was Matt Damon. His voice is essentially “too light”, with not enough dramatic weight and inflection. On that first Shrek teaser trailer, it’s a deeper, perhaps more “experienced” actor who’s imparting the very same lines, but with so much more conviction: “I was there, and I remember”, he says, and you believe that guy in the trailer. With Damon, you just kind of accept it.

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Much of my problem with the film was with the soundtrack. What should have been a lush, Randy Newman-western score was a hacked-off and tired re-working of themes from Hans Zimmer. Now don’t get me wrong, I love Zimmer – have most of his scores on CD in fact – but he misjudged this one, possibly in an attempt to fit in with the all-too-same-sounding songs from Bryan Adams. Again, I think Adams is one of the more interesting music artists out there and often writes very epic (call it “filmic” if you will) music, even when not for a movie. But every time a song kicked in, it completely jolted me out of the movie – “oh yeah, Bryan Adams is doing the songs for this” I kept thinking. His first song, Here I Am, works well enough, but Get Off My Back seemed to be the only one that stuck in my head and really fit the scene it was synched to, though even then the tie was a tenuous link. Overall, I thought Adams’ songs were all too literal, and had none of his word play that often crops up on his albums. As I mentioned, I think Zimmer was trying to meld the songs and score together, but they don’t work as a whole.

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In fact, I think that Zimmer’s score actually drowned the movie in several places. Spirit is basically a seriously minded movie (“an experiment” as producer and DreamWorks Animation head-honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg put it), with some amazing set pieces and darker-than-usual themes. The first rule of movie-music is that sometimes “less is more”. This was none so more apparent to me than during the climax, when Spirit must jump a canyon chasm to escape. Oh, how much better that scene would have played if the music had cut out before, or on, the jump, leaving the wind blowing in the high up air. It would have lent the scene conviction, danger, and the real possibility that they mightn’t have made it. As it is, the score almost lifts them up and carries them safely across – no danger, no suspense. It would have given more of a triumphant all-round happy blast of emotion had the music been absent, only to kick in big-time as Spirit’s hooves hit the ground on the other side – it’d be a major fist in the air time – “Whooo!”

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Overall, I just think it was in the direction that Spirit dropped to what is for me the most disappointing animated film to come from the DreamWorks stable thus far. Some of the shots seemed cramped, others bland (no really exciting angles here). Animation wise, the film had its ups and downs. The beginning, as seen in the trailer, was and will always be awesome, as was the train wreck sequence. Horses in animation have never really worked, and I was hoping from what I’d seen that this “Holy Grail of animation” would be addressed here with Spirit. When it was good, it was very, very good (perfection actually), but when it was bad it was ham-fisted and simplistic – kind of like the movie in general, for me at least.

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As with most films that don’t grab me first time out, Spirit is growing on me the more I see it, and there really are some outstanding sequences. But as a movie overall, it feels stretched, and like the American Indian who tries to tame the wild horse, I sometimes wished that the story would calm down long enough to bring in some real emotion. Don’t get me wrong – I didn’t hate Spirit at all. I didn’t think it was either good, or bad. It was just somewhere in the middle there. I was just “whelmed”…

Is This Thing Loaded?

Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron at least comes to DVD with the customary array of decent DreamWorks extras. First up is a chance to sit in with animator James Baxter as he demonstrates on how to draw Spirit from scratch. Aimed at younger viewers, Baxter comes across as friendly, and takes his time (14 minutes worth) in the drawing, and at the end of it you too may have something that at least resembles a horse! A nice idea for the audience in mind, and one that seems to have caught on in subsequent animation releases.

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The Animation Of Spirit featurette is a quick “run-through” the production process that lasts around seven minutes. Covering the different aspects of the animation techniques applied in telling Spirit’s story, this brief “making of” does its job, without leaving us wanting more. There are crew interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, rough CGI tests, and a great chat with Katzenberg, who seems most pleased with himself in that he’s come up with the term for the new breed of animated features that combine traditional hand-drawn and computer enhanced digital animation: “tradigital”.

The Music Of Spirit is a slightly longer 10-minute featurette which looks at both Hans Zimmer’s score and Bryan Adams’ songs. It’s interesting that both went through numerous changes in order to get the “right” feel for the movie, and perhaps explains the mixing of styles that eventually wound up in the finished production. Both are interviewed at length, and even if it does slip into a little self-kudos, it covers each song nicely and stays away from just being a promo for the album (although only just about – wait until the end for a not-so-subtle, almost subliminal, message).

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Storyboards takes a look at four sequences in their original form. Lasting a combined 17 minutes, it’s a great look at the way an animated feature takes shape, and what must be cut out to maintain the momentum. These boards run as video streams, with accompanying Hans Zimmer score or an optional audio commentary with the directors that lets you in further into the making of the film. A fascinating look, and with some interesting additional trivia (such as the fact that The Prince Of Egypt director Simon Wells was involved in Spirit during pre-production).

Production notes and biographies are the usual text pages of information (though quite nicely worded this time out), while of most interest to fans will be the full-length audio commentary with directors Lorna Cook and Kelly Asbury, and producer Mireille Soria. While not the most “animated” bunch, the commentary does convey some interesting information and the three are a likeable group, while most impressive was the inclusion of French and Spanish subtitles for the commentary, allowing non-English speaking audiences the opportunity to access the filmmakers’ words.

Once a film is issued with a commentary track (sometimes the most time consuming or expensive extra a DVD can have) I feel that this is as good a treatment a film will get on disc. Those hoping for a 2-disc extravaganza will be disappointed, but rest-assured that there will be no further up-grade for Spirit – this is it. And it’s a nice enough package, although I for one was surprised that neither the teaser (perhaps they were aware of how better that initial sequence was before it ended up in the movie?), the theatrical trailer nor Bryan Adams’ excellent music video for Here I Am’s single release made it on to the disc, even though that latter clip was a CD-ROM enhanced extra on that release. There is a promotion for other DreamWorks Animation titles on DVD, but also “missing” is any kind of teaser for DW’s next “tradigital” feature, Sinbad: Legend Of The Seven Seas, which was rumored to appear here.

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However, play the disc in a PC drive, and it’s in Spirit’s DVD-ROM world where things really get serious. Under the separate menu option DreamWorks Kids (accessed in the Special Features section) there is a whole host of games and activities for younger disc users to enjoy. A couple of links are repeated (we get the Baxter-Draw-Spirit lesson again, and another scene selection option) and there are a couple of set-top games (Cimarron Slam, a shooting game, and Mustang Derby, a race game) included in this section.

Highlights of the ROM material are a printable height chart, Tall As A Horse, plus Rain’s Coloring Fun, a Calendar Maker and Cimarron Cinema, which gives you everything you need to create your own movie posters and invites! Also included are the additional ROM features Frontier Find, Horse Sense, Hillside Glide, Canyon Concentration, Nickname Maker, Teepee Tees, the Wild West Word Wrangle, and Goal!!!

Best thing of all is the Make A Movie feature – a seriously entertaining video workshop that uses individual elements to make up your own Spirit clips. This is the kind of thing mooted at when DVD made its debut in 1997 – and not just a simple scene-editing feature as seen on some titles. Here, you become the director, choosing backgrounds, characters, animated sequences, music – even add your own photo images and voice narration if you like – in a relatively easy to use editing system that easily looks like your own professional suite! To access this groundbreaking and unique feature, one must download and install the included software, an easy and simple enough task. After you have created your masterpiece, save it, send it to friends, or start again – there are simply hours and hours of different choices to be explored, and a real danger of becoming hooked!

Case Study:

On the packaging front, some may be dismayed to find that the same gunky-glue sticker that adorned the Shrek sleeve is present here too, so much soaking in water and wiping with washing liquid (at least, that’s what worked for me!) must be done to remove it successfully. Inside, we get an adequate but not very special chapter index insert, which seems more like an advertisement for other titles in the new DreamWorks Animation line.

Ink And Paint:

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Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron is all about its images, and they are wonderfully preserved and reproduced on this fine looking disc. The composition in Spirit and its wide-angle vistas are a sight to behold, and a film with such a wide spectrum of color is fully deserving of the anamorphic transfer it gets here. Everything is rock solid – you can almost reach out and touch the blowing grass, or nearly burn your hand on the exploding fires. If this is from a film print, then it must be from the negative itself, as this looks as good as a digital-to-digital conversion (neither the disc or the packaging states any confirmation) and is totally free of blemishes or artefacts. There are no artificial enhancements made to “clean up” the picture, and everything looks bold and strong. Although a (terrible) pan-and-scan 1.33:1 edition is being sold separately, you really owe it to yourself to see this in its intended 2.35:1 widescreen ratio (marked by a yellow “widescreen” bar along the sleeve’s bottom front cover). A reference quality animation title!

Scratch Tracks:

A DTS track would have probably blown your speaker package away, but as a film made up from mostly lengthy non-dialogue scenes and standard pop-music tunes usually only heard in stereo anyway, then the Dolby Digital 5.1 track provided is more than adequate. Audio is spaced around the soundstage is a pleasing way, and the score really does come at you from all angles. Adams’ songs are well represented, and the entire soundtrack is a force to be reckoned with during the loud action scenes. It all remains clear throughout, and Damon’s voiceover is always understandable, if lacking emotional resonance. French 5.1 and both English and French 2.0 tracks are included for those without the full surround option, and these tracks mix the audio nicely so as not to miss anything worthwhile. English, French and Spanish subtitles have also been added.

Final Cut:

Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron is a very handsome movie. That I felt the soundtrack didn’t compliment the wonderfully lush visuals is obviously a personal opinion, and no doubt there will be many who warm to Spirit perhaps precisely because of the 1980s feel the music has about it. In the widescreen format Spirit shines, and the amazing transfer brings out all that is good in the film. As a disc it fares well too, with only the lack of the teaser and theatrical trailers a conspicuous omission. For fans of animated films that dare to take a chance and try something new, Spirit should be on your “must-see” list, though whether its one to own will be down to personal preference. Casual viewers may the find the story a little repetitive, but it will go down extremely well with young girls who will warm to the horses and be thrilled by the adventure elements. Parents can feel safe that Spirit contains nothing too harsh, and may find themselves sticking around for the ride. The Spirit disc, like the film itself, isn’t the most amazing package, but somehow feels “just right”!

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

spirit10.jpg MAIN FEATURE
SUPPLEMENTS
VIDEO IMAGE
SOUND TRACK
OVERALL DVD

 

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