LOS ANGELES, May 22 (UPI) -- "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron," the new animated feature from Dreamworks, is the story of a wild horse in the Old American West who teams up with an Indian youth as they both struggle to live naturally, free of the white man's cruel yoke.
The reality is a little more complicated. Mustangs aren't indigenous to the West. They are feral. There weren't any horses in the Americas until they escaped from European invaders.
To be precise, there once were wild horses here, but then the Indians arrived from Siberia 13,000 years ago and -- according to a growing number of scientists -- ate them all.
But, hey, "Spirit" is a kids' cartoon movie, so let's not get picky.
By animation standards, "Spirit" is surprisingly austere. It abstains from most of the more uninhibited pleasures that animation makes possible. There are no surrealistic slapstick scenes, show-stopping dance numbers, smart-alecky pop culture references, or goofy sidekicks.
Indeed, the animals don't even talk to each other. The horses just whinny, scrunch their faces, and roll their eyes expressively. (To humanize our horsey hero without indulging in dialogue, Matt Damon of "Good Will Hunting" fame occasionally narrates coltishly, and Bryan Adams sings some pleasant rock ballads.)
Overall, "Spirit" is a refreshing change of pace. At least since Disney's frenetic "Aladdin," animated movies have tended toward the World Wrestling Federation's corporate philosophy of: We will do anything -- anything -- to entertain you. By imposing limits on their own freedom, the Dreamworks team forced themselves to do better in the areas left available.
For example, the action scenes -- especially the train crash near the end -- are more visceral than what animation generally delivers. In fact, the segment in which the evil Indian-fighting colonel (a George Armstrong Custer look-alike) tries to break Spirit to the saddle is brutal enough that I was surprised "Spirit" had received a "G" rating.
It has become customary for a children's movie to go for a "PG" rating to signal to kids aged ten and up that this isn't just for babies. In contrast, Dreamworks appears to be using its "G" rating to hint to parents that the movie's appeal skews toward smaller children.
Further, "Spirit," with its painterly scenery -- the Rockies in autumn are particularly exquisite -- might be the prettiest conventionally drawn cartoon movie since "The Fox and the Hound." Dreamworks' executive Jeffrey Katzenberg recycled the spectacular opening -- a bald eagle swooping through a greatest hits collection of Western landscapes -- from the nearly identical introduction to Disney's "Rescuers Down Under," in which an eagle soars and plummets above Australia.
Yet, neither of those Disney films were hits, probably because lovely landscapes are not high on the list of what kids like to look at. What children seem to want in pictures is not complex beauty but vigorous simplification.
In fact, if Dreamworks had wanted to make "Spirit" look even better, they would have shot it as a live-action film. Their animators did a fine job drawing horses, but a cartoon horse can never be as attractive as a real one. Think of 1979's live action classic, "The Black Stallion," which remains one of the most visually stunning films ever made.
Like most children's movies nowadays, "Spirit's" plot is aimed at boys, because little boys hate movies about girls more than little girls hate movies about boys. So, our main character hero is of course a male (although not an anatomically correct one), as is his Sioux buddy and his American officer enemy.
In Disney animated features, the villain is often an effeminate aristocrat, such as Jeremy Irons' Uncle Scar in "The Lion King" or the few bad guys in "Aladdin" and "Pocahontas." So, when I saw that the colonel was a longhaired cavalier dandy, I expected him to be another histrionic fop like Captain Hook in "Peter Pan."
Yet, the colonel (voiced by the redoubtable James Cromwell of "Babe") turns out to be a hard man, one willing to take it as well as dish it out. He emerges as a worthy foe for the young stallion. In the climax, when Spirit finally wins the colonel's grudging respect, the emotional payoff is surprisingly strong.
Of course, everyone knows that girls are crazier than boys about horses, although no one is too sure why. (Yes, I'm familiar with the smirky explanation, but why are so many little girls obsessed with ponies before they've ever ridden one?) Still, this gender difference might be historically new. Pre-20th century children's literature suggests that boys were also nuts for horses until cars, bulldozers, planes, and giant fighting robots alienated their affections.
A friend of mine explains the paradox like this, "Boys like power. Girls like power that can be cuddled and guided and controlled -- power that will love you for your gentle authority. Does a Mercedes do that?"