Saturday, 6 April 2013

Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron

George Orwell once wrote of H.G. Wells that “the energy that actually shapes the world springs from emotions – racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, love of war – which liberal intellectuals mechanically write off as anachronisms, and which they have usually destroyed so completely in themselves as to have lost all power of action.”

Here, Orwell is almost uncannily describing a great deal of North America’s animation output over the years. The emotions he mentions, which rest basically on the atavistic worship of strength and the thrill of feeling oneself on the winning side, have been resolutely inadmissible into the Disney paradigm that shapes so much of what our culture feels is acceptable and/or appropriate for children. Any figure that seems to embody such a mindset is invariably caricatured by animated films’ narratives as a mean, stupid bully to be worsted at the end, or a delusionally blustering idiot, or a crusty and unfeeling survivalist who will realize the error of his ways, or a damaged/misguided figure who will repent and be forgiven, or simply the “evil” villain. The putative “hero,” on the other hand, always has to be some sort of muscular Christianity figure, for whom right makes might, and somehow seems to possess the strength and courage to win through at the end without really wanting or valuing the fact. Or the narrative must simply be arranged so that other forces are at work which will ensure the victory of the good without much egregious action from our hero/ine at all, and the implication will simply be that it was their purity or heart and spotlessness of soul that brought all the stars into alignment. It’s probably not a coincidence that a lot of animated films have either female protagonists, or strong heroines juxtaposed with somewhat de-masculinized or irresolute heroes. Even beyond the obvious princess canon at Disney, there’s the decades-long Secret of NIMH/Last Unicorn/Fern Gully/Once Upon a Forest/Thumbelina/Anastasia/Quest for Camelot/The King and I/Titan A.E. history to prove the point. This indicates a general sense that any whiff of decisive masculine action will bring the film into the territory of the “atavistic emotions that actually shape the world,” which we of course know children are innocent of and must be protected from.

All this has the very obvious strike against it that it runs totally against human nature, and the perversely pre-moral nature of young children most of all. But animated films are made for children, not by them, and the adults that make these films must balance their concern over what they think children will like with what they think is appropriate for children, and what the parents required to take the said children to these films will think themselves. All this, however, is rooted in the belief that “animation = for children,” and must thus reflect the most bigoted idea of what is appropriate for children. It requires only a moment’s thought to realize that this belief is arbitrary – in fact quite absurd – but it has nonetheless taken invincible root in much of the West, and movie studios, accountable to the stockholders of their corporate oligopolies, have to work with that fact.

Thus, the crucial fact that DreamWorks Animation was only taken public as a company on October 27th, 2004. Before that, it was simply a part of DreamWorks SKG – a private company owned by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen, incorporated with their own money, and subject to no interests but their own. Thus, any kind of animated movie they wanted could be produced there wholly at their own discretion. 2002’s Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, was one of the results.

DreamWorks’s inaugural animated film, The Prince of Egypt – an epic re-telling of the Book of Exodus – showed that Katzenberg had not yet fully shaken off the habits acquired as head of animation production at Disney, where he was the architect of the studio’s Little Mermaid/Beauty and the Beast/Aladdin/Lion King renaissance. Accordingly, The Prince of Egypt was still structured around periodic musical set pieces where the characters spontaneously break into song, and the overall tone of the film was tainted with an appalling moral falsity. The first sequences shove lurid images of toiling and anguishing slaves in our faces, as if just to make sure we get the point that this is bad. Zipporah’s characterization as an obnoxious, violent, loudmouth is supposed to represent some sort of pop feminism, and so she’s never contradicted or punished by the film. Aaron and Miriam’s incredibly annoying and milksop-ish (respectively) characterizations  are likewise supposed to be funny and endearing. Whereas Pharaoh – both Patrick Stewart’s Seti and Ralph Fiennes’s Rameses – seem like maturely dignified figures, well-apportioned to the kingly exercise of power and force. We are thus supposed to hiss and boo. The Prince of Egypt was a visual masterpiece, no doubt, but its underlying sensibilities were as appalling as always.

Coming four years after The Prince of Egypt, with the moderately-recalibrated The Road to El Dorado in between, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron – a revisionist western about a wild mustang named “Spirit” who is captured by the US cavalry, and forced to go on an odyssey through the human world – is that astonishing film that reflects filmmakers actually making the radical 180° turn needed. Properly read, the film constitutes an almost point-for-point rebuttal of the paradigm of kiddie animation described above. First and foremost, Spirit is a film that jettisons the feminized passivity of other animated films, and glories in the masculine values of strength, courage and indomitability of spirit. Captivity is not something to be bemoaned and waited for rescue from, but something from which to exert all your energies to escape. The chance to toss your opponents around like rag dolls is not something to be avoided, or done only regretfully out of necessity, but to be seized with full sadistic enjoyment. And the conscious drive necessary for great feats is – rather than an antisocial element needing to be corrected – ultimately the only way of establishing mutual respect between adversaries. The dispensing with the usual childish clichés reaches such a point, in fact, that Spirit is probably nigh-unique in Hollywood history in that when the hero shouts (or neighs the equivalent of) “Get away! Leave me!” the other character is sensible enough to actually do so.

Although the film does not eschew anthropomorphism of animals, it has the remarkable courage to forgo the talking animals trope of so many animated films, and simply convey our equine hero’s emotions through facial expressions and body language, supplemented by a spare voice-over track by Matt Damon giving us Spirit’s inner monologue when absolutely necessary. The film also does not shy away from relying on horse-speak at times. A sample “dialogue” scene, I kid you not, plays out thus…
-- nickers
-- snorting
-- nickers
-- nickering
-- whinnies
-- chomp
-- neighs warningly
-- nickers determinedly
The refusal of talking-animals anthropomorphism is for the very good reason that our hero is characterized from the very first as an über-equus, whose strength, speed and fortitude have made him undisputed leader of the herd, and will enable him to survive trials which would break a lesser horse. Any suggestion that this is really just some human in animal’s clothing, as in Wind in the Willows or a Beatrix Potter novel, would destroy the film completely. We absolutely need to feel Spirit’s full-on straining, snorting, virile stallion aspect for the film to work.

Interestingly, because Spirit has broken with most animated filmmaking before it and decided to ennoble masculinity, it also ends up able to respect the feminine principle that much more. The movie does, alas, still incorporate some of the ersatz pop feminist aspect where it’s cute “girl power” for the heroine to smugly denigrate and humiliate the hero, but here it’s both truncated, contradicted, and karmically punished by the narrative. A great improvement. Beyond this, however, the film is striking in that the hero’s birth isn’t signified by the sort of loving pieta scene familiar from Bambi and The Lion King. Here, we actually see Spirit’s mother foaling, in full sweaty maternal pain, after which we see him take his first suck at her teat. The father is nowhere to be seen in this scene, or the film’s whole cosmogony. We are introduced to the adult Spirit as leader of the herd, which one throw-away line of narration alludes to his father having been before him, but nothing more is ever made of this. A depressing number of animated films adopt a Catholic-style aesthetic of pater filial piety in which the father may be tyrannical and wrong, but is still the unanswerable temporal power, while the mother is sanctified out of all earthly relevance. Spirit rejects this, and makes the mother a figure of full temporal authority – apparently Spirit’s deputy leader while he’s around, and his replacement in his absence.

No animated film that I can think of has ever gone as far as Spirit in trying to be simply an epic film, which just happens to be realized through animation. Ultimately though, Katzenberg & Co. remained aware that they were still subject to the preconceptions about animation held by North American audiences, and still had the modulate things somewhat. As with the Disney films of yesteryear, Spirit makes you do some interpretive work to get to its full thematic import, having cloaked this in an aesthetic that initially seems diametrically opposed. But whereas with Disney back in the early 1940s it was simply a thuggishly infantile and parochial moral sensibility, here in 2002 it’s a pop aesthetic that seems aimed squarely at twelve-year old girls. After that remarkable foaling scene, the next few scenes are devoted to Spirit back when he was an impossibly cute little colt, doing things like neighing earnestly at a kindly and indulgent herd of buffalo, or trotting along with exaggerated dignity and nonchalance after getting his tongue stuck to a huge icicle, which he now has to carry around in his mouth. On top of all this, there’s a Bryan Adams soundtrack that even wholly sympathetic viewers like myself must admit doesn’t add all that much to the proceedings. And ultimately, there are a number of images (see above left) which, although brilliantly executed in terms of visual density and detail, are perhaps just the slightest bit too “awww, how gorgeous!” in their affect.

The film’s contradictions are perhaps best exemplified in a third-act sequence where Spirit is press-ganged into a team of horses which are being made to haul a locomotive over a mountain which the Pacific Railroad is tunneling under. Upon reaching the crest of the hill, and seeing the vista beyond, there’s a dramatic moment where Spirit finally understands that the humans are trying to extend their dominion into “his homeland” – a realization that reawakens all of his inner reserves of strength and courage. Pretending to fall down dead from overwork, he’s taken out of his harness, at which point he resurges and thunderously gallops back to the prow of the locomotive. Rearing up and drawing upon all his super-equine strength, he smashes his hooves down full force on the couplings to the horse teams, and staves them in. The other horses are free, and the locomotive begins to slide back down the mountain, gathering momentum as it does, finally smashing into the depot at the bottom of the hill, causing a ferocious explosion which starts a violent inferno, the firestorm quickly engulfing the railway construction yard and spreading to the treeline, as Spirit gallops furiously away from it. And behind him, at the edges of the frame, you can see that the DreamWorks animators have cannily made sure that we notice that all the cute squirrels and rabbits and deer in the forest are getting away too.

This sort of thing notwithstanding however, Spirit is an amazing intervention in animated filmmaking. It features a fetishism of the phrase “my homeland,” a Braveheart-worthy emphasis on “freedom,” and a running visual motif of aligning Spirit with a soaring eagle – purged here of its connotations of full-on military nationalism and imperialism, but still symbolizing his strength and indomitability. A moment in the film’s denouement has a Lakota brave he’s befriended reveal the etymology of the movie’s title – by giving him the tribal name “Spirit-Who-Could-Not-Be-Broken.”

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