The spirit of the mythical American West runs at the head of a herd of wild mustangs. They live and breathe — like their two-legged, Disney-animated counterparts, the Lakota — on the open golden plains fed by the rushing Cimarron, a river as blue as the windy skies it reflects. You can almost smell the fresh air as the stallion Spirit (the voice of Matt Damon) protects his herd, like his father before him — even humbling a savage cougar — and like the way his Disney predecessor, Simba of The Lion King (1994), protected his pride.
Children like to hear the same old story again and again, as any parent knows. Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron traces the plot of the 1994 Disney classic. This Dreamworks (Shrek, The Prince of Egypt) animated feature also offers an orphan born to lead. But the blood of kings doesn’t course through his veins: After all, this is an American tale telling of a time before the Little Bighorn, not the timeless Africa of The Lion King. And the villain isn’t Simba’s evil ambitious uncle Scar (that Disneyfied Hamlet’s uncle-meets-Darth Vader), but the strong-willed Colonel (the voice of James Cromwell) who’s the cartoon image of General Custer.
The Colonel’s cavalrymen lasso Spirit, but he refuses to be broken despite the slapstick efforts of the troopers. Little Creek (the voice of Native-American actor Daniel Studi), a young Lakota brave, suffers close to the same fate. Both wind up roped to the posts of the cavalry’s corral. Their only hope of redeeming the freedom they both live for is to band together.
As odd-couple buddies, Spirit and Little Creek kick the story into a wild gallop through adventures worthy of any action movie and a romantic comedy of neighs and whinnies when the Lakota’s trusty steed Rain trots into the picture. Spirit races far ahead of the Disney pack in sensational thrills, though it doesn’t run as mythically deep. And the Dudley-Do-Right-ish love triangle between a stallion, a man (Spirit calls him a “boy”) and his pretty, painted pony puts a fresh twist in the plot line.
Spirit is rated G, but a word of parental guidance: The animated violence falls somewhere between afternoon cartoons and video games, while Spirit’s prancing wooing only has the faintest whiff of anything sexual (while Little Creek, like Dudley, only loves his horse). Still, images that equate darkness of hide with slavish villainy and animals with Native Americans seem tinged with the worst of Disney’s old-world-order iconography.
But at least in this spirited pony ride through the melodrama of the American West, it’s the Indians who are the good guys.
James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].