oys can like ponies, too,” retorted one of my male friends as a pre-teen in response to teasing that horses were for girls. While equine infatuation has long been associated with young females, much lore involving horses—knights in armor, cowboys, and jockeys, for example—has been a male dominion. And this movie, too, is about brave young lads, horses, and individualism, true to a dated idea of the American Dream. The hero of DreamWorks’ latest animated feature, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, is a wild mustang horse living in the Old West.
Looking back on his colt-hood and then, young stud-hood, Spirit (whose voice-over narration is provided by Matt Damon) recalls being the free-living leader of the Cimarron herd. Life is good at the beginning of the film: Spirit has a mother who loves him, he races with eagles, and he frolics with his merry herd of horses through canyons and fields. Unsurprisingly, there’s trouble brewing for young Spirit.
Captured by a Colonel (voice of James Cromwell), a member of the U.S. cavalry, the horse immediately compares the mustachioed human to a rattlesnake. The Colonel wants to break the wild mustang’s spirit, at first to have another horse in his stable, but soon it becomes a battle of wills. A horse needs to know his place, after all, and that place is at the beck and call of man.
True to his name (which is not officially given to him until well toward the end of the film), Spirit wants no part of this. Spirit’s experience is paralleled by that of Little Creek (voice of Daniel Studi), a young Lakota brave also captured by the cavalry and tied to a post. Noble as Little Creek is in his respect for Spirit’s identity as a wild horse, he wants to ride him anyway. Little Creek and Spirit embark on a friendship, despite Spirit’s misgivings about hanging with a “two-legged.” It is clear even from this brief introduction that the film will argue against the imposition of one culture’s values (say, the U.S. cavalry) on another (the wild horses). And while it may seem odd that the Colonel is the principal villain, given that most recent Hollywood offerings favor the U.S. military, in structure if not in all its individuals, there is more to Spirit’s story that does ring patriotic. Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron is also about preserving rugged individualism, protecting the homeland, and defending the right to live free—all very American values, and values echoed in other DreamWorks’ kid-friendly pictures, such as Shrek.
There is another villain here, also very American: industrial progress in the form of big business, symbolized in Spirit by the encroaching railroad. In addition to avoiding capture, Spirit must grapple with the train, which threatens his herd’s way of life and the beauty of the not-yet-ruined-by-white-people land. At one point, Spirit finds himself a veritable and quite literal slave to industry, chained to a locomotive engine in the service of the very men who raze mountains and annihilate forests. This destruction is even more of a crime than usual, for the animated scenery here is stunning, as alive as any minor character in the film; the seasons change slowly and with great nuance.
The stark contrast between the open land and the dull closeness of the military fort made me understand claustrophobia. The wide plains and tall mountains are nostalgically magnificent and I really wanted to hear Bryan Adams, who sings often throughout the film’s soundtrack, in a rock-ballad version of “Home on the Range.” But that would be such a cliché, and this film has enough of those already (broad panoramas of galloping horses and thundering buffalo; a narrow-eyed, sneery villain, a rash young hero, a wise Native American, to name a few).
Spirit addresses the question: how far can or should you go to protect your way of life? The answer given is: pretty far, including violence and wide-ranging destruction. Such actions are okay if taken in self-defense. Sound familiar? This has been justification for numerous destructive actions, especially since September 11. But what happens when more than one way of life exists in a single, very large place? Who has the right to dictate what happens in that space? Anyone old enough to know U.S. history knows exactly what happens: Little Creek’s Lakota, the wild horses, and the buffalo are all doomed. In Spirit, however, this outcome is left open; this film is, after all, the story of one young horse, not all of North American civilization.
True to an American sense of purpose, the story centers on one individual’s sense of “belonging” to a place regardless of where one originally come from—whatever “originally” means. We know that horses native to North America left migrated off the continent long, long ago, and any wild horses in Spirit’s time were likely the descendents of horses brought by Spanish and Portuguese colonizers.
When Spirit claims that the open plains are where he belongs and where he has “always” lived, he means that he feels at home there, regardless of how his ancestors were introduced to the territory. This is the most positive message of this film, but still reminiscent of the post 9-11 surfeit of American flags hanging on cars and in store windows. Everybody belongs, except when those in power say you don’t. While Spirit was in production long before September 11, the film’s images of a steam engine—the technological feats of man—going down in explosions and flames in the name of cultural preservation—evoke images of that day’s tragedies; then again, what doesn’t anymore? In this case, though, we relate to the (inadvertent) destroyer, Spirit, rather than the destroyed, that is, the railroad workers.
But everyone is this movie is ultimately a hero; they all eventually do the right thing. Even Spirit comes to recognize benefits of other ways of life through his friendship with Little Creek and his romance with Little Creek’s pinto mare, Rain. The film has a satisfactory conclusion, as expected, but leaves plenty of room for a Spirit Returns, Son of Spirit, or a TV series. We are Americans, and we are free to watch the same story over, and over again.