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Wednesday, September 03, 2003


Review of the animated movie "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron" (originally written 7-5-02)

I keep starting to write this, then stopping again. On the one hand, I'm really appalled. On the other hand, why bother? It's only a children's movie...

Still, it's been a week since I saw the film and I'm still vexed. I'm going to take one more crack at writing this down before letting it go.

Last Tuesday - that would be July 2nd, 2002 - I talked myself into going to see the animated movie "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron".

On the positive side, this is an amazingly well-crafted animation. The scenery, the body language, the facial expressions on the horses, the pace and timing of the plot – all are extraordinarily well implemented.

Never the less, I hope that you will not go see this movie. Here’s why:

The subtext of this movie is, "white man bad, red man better, horses good, wild horses best". There are, of course, some who hold such opinions - that's not the problem. What I do object to are dishonest and manipulative attempts to sell those opinions, especially in a children's movie.

On my previous attempts to write this, I've trapped myself each time into describing the plot point-by-point. But the problem here isn't the plot - it's the direction. Still, beware: there may be some SPOILERS below.

This film's directors used two types of dirty tricks. The more obvious is create some subtle differences between two groups in order to convince the unconscious that one group is in some sense better than the other. For example, compare the drab, uniform coloring of Army horses to the wild and Indian horses. Sorry, but the army didn’t really paint all of its horses brown.

For a better example, contrast what happens when “Spirit” is captured for the Army with “Spirit” being captured by the Lakota Indians. When "Spirit" is captured by the Army, we see it from below, close-up, with his neck muscles straining hard against the ropes. It's highly dramatic. Later, when "Spirit" escapes the army with Little Creek, two more Lakotian men ride up and simple drop the loops of their lassoes around "Spirit's" neck. This time, "Spirit" simply rolls his eyes while the voice over says something to the effect of "again with the ropes?". The Lakotians don't even have to take up the slack. And this is the same horse that, minutes before, was deliberately falling onto his back in an attempt to crush his rider.

The second, subtler trick involves choosing what not to show. There are numerous examples, but the most dreadful are probably the lack of reaction shots. When "Spirit" does something of which the film approves, there are reaction shots showing approval. When Little Creek does something, there are reaction shots of his friends. But when "The Colonel" issues a cruel order, there are no reaction shots to suggest that the other soldiers have any opinion whatsoever. In this way, the directors indirectly implicate all of the soldiers in the Colonel's cruelty.

Similarly, Spirit causes enormous injury and destruction in this film: repeatedly kicking the farrier; viciously throwing various riders; rolling backwards into another; chasing away all of the army's horses; destroying a steam engine; and causing an enormous forest fire. But there are no reaction shots in any of these cases: no horrified expressions, no concerned looks, no painful grimace, not even a stretcher or a figure limping away into the distance.

That's because the directors wished to make these actions seem inconsequential, at least compared to the awful thing that the men dared try to do – that is, saddle and ride a horse.

In the end, that's what really, really surprises me. Forget the fact that every wild horse in America was descended from domesticated European horses. Forgot that breaking a horse is no crueler than training a dog. Forget all of the dishonesty. Instead, focus on message that that dishonesty is working to promote. "Spirit" is a children's movie that tells the little kiddies that horses hate to be ridden! Even Little Creek, who already owns a broken, devoted horse, ends up setting that horse free to go with "Spirit". Sorry, lil' Sally, but according to this movie, if you want a pony, you're as bad as that mean ol’ Colonel!

I know I haven't managed to fully convey the dishonesty of this film. I hope somebody studies this piece of P.C. propaganda in film school and posts a fuller treatment onto the net. Until then, don't give DreamWorks any more money for this drek. If you must see it, be wild and untamed! Sneak in through the exits and watch it for free! Spirit would have wanted it that way.

PS: If it matters, I personally think that the U.S. Government acted shamefully toward the Indian nations. I also think that it probably didn’t matter in the long run – read the Pulitzer-winning book, “Germs, Guns, and Steel” to see why more low-density cultures necessarily fall to higher-density cultures (hint – the big factor is disease).

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