The opening three minutes of Spirit are exhilarating. In what its producer Jeffrey Katzenberg calls "tradigital animation"that is, animation that takes advantage of computer animation's capacity for movement in three dimensions but looks like the hand-drawn itemthe camera swoops and dives across a western landscape, following an eagle's course.
Unfortunately, the exhilaration is summoned up not for its own sake, but to encourage the audience to buy into a vision of the West that is, in many particulars, blatantly false. It's very odd, for example, that a wild horse, the eponymous Spirit, should be offered as the embodiment of an unspoiled West. The horses native to North America died off thousands of years ago. Nineteenth-century wild horses like Spirit were the descendants of domestic beasts, and many people have seen them not as symbols of freedom, but as destructive interlopers. The film's wild horses are as much European imports as the cavalry colonel who is their antagonist.
Spirit is filled with fictions and distortions at war with its high-mindedness. Why should we care that the horses do not speak, when their faces are crudely and obviously expressive in a manner no less unrealistic than speech would have been? How is it that these horses, whose reality is supposedly being respected, are as monogamous as Bambi and Faline? Does it really make any sense to present cavalry horses as if they were slaves rejoicing in Spirit's rebellion, and he a sort of equine Nat Turner?
Any movieany work of artwill necessarily be false in one or many ways, but some falsehoods open the way to the truth, or at least don't get in its way. Spirit's falsehoods could be excused if its central conflict, between the horse and the cavalry colonel, were treated as a struggle between two powerful personalities, each intent on dominance. Instead, we're given a struggle between good and evil. The colonel is so one-dimensionally cold and cruel that his final gesturesaving Spirit and his Indian friend from a bullet in the backis wholly arbitrary.
Katzenberg, after so many years at Disney and now DreamWorks, is an old hand at this sort of thing, the visually spectacular, morally pretentious animated film whose premises wither on close examination. As a filmmaker who marshals stunning images in the service of bad ideas, he has become animation's equivalent of Leni Riefenstahl. The ideas behind Katzenberg's films are certainly not as terrible as the ideas Riefenstahl served when she was Hitler's favorite filmmaker, but they're bad just the same.
"The Circle of Life," the opening number in The Lion King, Katzenberg's biggest success at Disney, is at least as thrilling as Spirit's opening scenes. And as bogus. What that number shows us, after all, beneath the superficial message of ecological harmony, is a throng of herbivores humbling themselves before a meat eater who will, in the near future, fasten his sharp teeth on the throats of as many of his docile subjects as he can catch.
Hollywood movies often dramatize movie people's fears or fantasies: What is One Hour Photo but an expression of the disgust stars feel when confronted by their most devoted fans, the stalkers? Katzenberg's "Circle of Life" is very much of that ilk. It plays like the ultimate fantasy of a notably carnivorous species, the Hollywood producer.
[Posted May 2003]