Dreamworks' Underrated Masterpiece
Over the course of the company's nearly twenty years of operation, Dreamworks has released a plethora of films that are not only praised by critics, but also beloved by audiences around the globe. Despite often playing second fiddle to Disney and Pixar, Dreamworks has proved itself to be an iconic studio in the world of animation. When you hear about the accomplishments of Dreamworks, the projects that get mentioned are Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, How to Train Your Dragon, etc. But one you rarely ever hear about is Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron by Kelly Asbury and Lorna Cook. A movie that was not only beautifully animated and heartfelt, but also proved to be well ahead of its time.
Spirit hit theaters on May 24th, 2002 and was the first film to follow, Shrek, the studio's most successful project to date. It follows the story of a wild Kiger Mustang named Spirit and his journey after being kidnapped by the United States Cavalry during the American Indian Wars. Spirit was easily one of my favorite films during my early childhood and I have so many vivid memories of enjoying the movie with my parents, it's probably what got me so into horses and animals. To this day, it's an incredibly nostalgic film for me and will always hold a special place in my heart. The film has several strong elements that led to its eventual Oscar nomination for Best Animation Feature. It even won an Annie Award for achievement in storyboarding. The animation and character design is beautiful, the story is thrilling and well-written, and although it can be extremely cheesy, the score by Hans Zimmer and Bryan Adams is very enjoyable and nostalgic. However, the most unique part about the movie is the plot and the antagonist, which all point to American colonialism and western expansion in the 19th century,
Spirit is not simply the story of a horse trying to find his way back home, it is also a fierce defense of Native Americans. Soon after his capture, Spirit escapes custody of the Cavalry with a Lakota man named Little Creek, who ends up becoming a sort of secondary protagonist. After the escape, the pair arrive at the Lakota tribe's village, showcasing the beautiful culture of the Lakota people. Little Creek is a character who is undeniably pure of heart and someone the audience is meant to sympathize with. While watching this film as a kid, I had no idea that this was probably the first and only positive portrayal I had seen of Native American people, one I have not managed to have seen since. There's no doubt that this had an effect on my young, developing mind.
On the surface, the villain of Spirit is the Colonel played by James Cromwell, based off General George Custer. However, the problem is much deeper than that. The true villain is colonialism. Over the cour se of the film, Spirit's main aspiration evolves from simply returning home to saving his friend, Little Creek from colonizers that want to relocate him and his people. This results in Spirit destroying production on the transcontinental railroad which of course, didn't historically happen but it's a nice, hopeful ending and makes the audience wonder how different the world would be if colonialism had never gotten the chance to expand west. I think a lot of good could be done by showing this film to young children in order to educate them about colonialism and Native Americans in a way that's not only entertaining, but from a different perspective than most schools usually show. There's a big difference between how schools portray the relationship between the Natives and white settlers and the real events that occurred, Spirit is a reminder of that.
Over the course of American film's 130+ year history, portrayal of Native Americans has been rarely positive. In fact, it was extremely uncommon to even see Native American actors on screen. Often, Indigenous characters were played by Hispanic or Italian actors, famously, Iron Eyes Cody. Even in 2002, Dreamworks made sure to cast a Native person for the role of Little Creek, who is voiced by Cherokee actor, Daniel Studi. In the past decade it's still been common practice to see white people get cast in non-white roles such as Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, Emma Stone in Aloha, and Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger. It's refreshing to see a real Native voice be represented on screen from a major studio like Dreamworks. Spirit was clearly ahead of its time.
Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron is one of Dreamworks' best films and deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as films like Shrek, Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon. It not only offers an engaging and heartfelt story, but also a positive, refreshing portrayal of Native Americans. It's a film that has the potential to make a large positive impact on its viewers, especially if those viewers are young children. If you haven't seen it yet, make sure you get around to it, I promise you won't forget it.