Whenever I happen to be reminiscing about some of my favorite childhood classics, I never fail to mention the movie that shaped me into the closeted horse girl I am today. However, I am often disappointed at the responses I get when I talk about this masterpiece of a film and have decided to share with the world a list of reasons why Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron is an underrated animated classic.
This movie is a following of a stallion by the name of Spirit. He is a horse who lives free in the Old West with his people until Union soldiers come with the goal of industrializing the area. Through many conflicts and struggles for his freedom, Spirit fights to protect his home from the human invaders.
In order for an animated movie to succeed, it has to look pretty. And boy, does this movie fulfill that. There is a prevalent and distinctive style that not only brings the characters to life, but gives the whole movie personality and flair. The warm color palette and the life of the Old West contrasts with the dull browns of the Union barracks and greys of the trains. These elements act to guide the audience to see the world with the same connotation as Spirit. This emotionally backed color scheme leads to some gorgeous parallel shots that speak for themselves.
While this movie is based in the traditional 2D animation style, it also pushes the technological boundaries for its time. When appropriate, the animators combine the traditional style with a 3D computer animation to have sweeping shots of nature. When compared to today’s advancements, some of these shots may seem childish. But one must remember how new this technology was almost 20 years ago. To dare to combine these animation mediums alone is admirable. Yet these animators went above and beyond to meld them in such a seamless and effortless manner.
One of the most distinctive traits about the animals in this movie is that, like real life animals, they don’t speak. The only auditory look the audience gets into the animals’ minds comes in Spirit’s occasional non-diegetic narration or the lyrics in the soundtrack. Yet the movie never seems to suffer from this amputation. In fact, one would argue that it enhances its quality. In order to overcome the lack of dialogue, the animals conveyed all of their thoughts and emotions through expressions and body language. This movie is a prime example of how animals can show expression while maintaining a semblance of reality. This is something that Lion King (2019) couldn’t even do despite its far more advanced technology.
Of course, the whole point of creating a movie is to tell a story and to tell it well. This movie is so extremely effective in its storytelling that the audience is swept away in the plot and wastes no time in the minor details. Can you remember any name in the movie other than Spirit? No? That’s because the movie prioritizes its stories above its names. The only prevalent named characters are Spirit, Little Creek, the human boy, and Rain, Spirit’s love interest and connection to the positive side of the human world. The only name to be used in the movie is Rain’s. The others only appear in the credits. The use of Rain’s name shows her connection to the human world and how different she is from Spirit. The use of the name is significant and relevant to the greater themes of the movie.
Despite previous shortcomings in Hollywood, Spirit gracefully portrays Native American people in a way that is respectful and unproblematic. While previous animated movies gave voice to a European narrative that portrayed indigenous peoples from a warped perspective, this film is from the perspective of people from America. Popular movies featuring Native Americans often fall into the trap of speaking only from the white perspective. Pocahontas, for example, is from the perspective of an indigenous woman, but the story it is based on is the egotistical and fantastical imagination of a lonely European colonizer. Whereas Dances with Wolves, a movie set in a nearly identical setting as Spirit, features a white-savior that invalidates the independence of the indigenous. The creators of Spirit by no means made a film that breaks serious boundaries for native representation in film, but it by far surpassed the quality and respect in film for its time.
In addition to that, the film gracefully handles portraying the genocide of the natives. The film does not attempt to redeem or validate the colonizers, but instead shows them as the conquerors they were. It depicts the destruction of a Lakota town and the violence the Union soldiers had on the natives in an appropriate and understandable way for children.
Due to the lack of dialogue in the movie, the storytelling relies heavily on the soundtrack behind every scene. The composers and performers rise to the occasion and have produced a series of wonderful songs that show a great range of emotions and tone. A blend of orchestral and country-soft rock provide the perfect partner for the visuals of the movie. The lyrics in songs such as “Get Off My Back” and “You Can’t Take Me” provide an engaging alternative to a traditional monologue. The songs are also strong enough to stand alone from the movie as a revisitable homework playlist. The emotion behind their performances are commendable and align perfectly with the emotional beats in the movie.
Despite all of the wonderful qualities of this film, it has yet to receive its due recognition.
If you liked Spirit…, check out these movies!
The Road to El Dorado (2000)
This fellow early 2000’s animated film brings a similar sense of wonder and excitement to its audience. A tribute to the old The Road to… series, this movie throws two European con men into Central America where they set out to find a city of gold. Along the way they encounter more and more ridiculous situations that they must outwit in order to survive. The movie maintains the dry humor of the original series that is entertaining to adults, sometimes more than children. With subtle fourth wall breaks and an invigorating soundtrack, this movie is a true adventure from start to finish.
The Prince of Egypt (1998)
Based on the Book of Exodus, this film is a retelling of one of the most prominent religious stories of all time. The movie follows Moses from childhood into adulthood as he challenges the authority of the Egyptians, the people who raised them, over the Jewish, his people. Through engaging and wonderfully composed musical numbers, Moses realizes his role to lead his people to freedom despite exile from the land and people he grew up with. As one of the only movies that all Abrahamic religions agree to be accurate, this movie makes religious education fun and engaging.
Cecilia Cantu is a pop culture critic for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine The Howl