Hello, everyone! Today I’m going to spend too much time ranting about a terrible sequel to a 20-year-old animated horse movie. If discussing Spirit: The Stallion of the Cimarron and its ridiculous reboot Spirit Untamed doesn’t interest you, I suggest that you exit now, because we’re about to get serious.
Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron was one of the first movies that showed me what a beautiful, thoughtful, and profound animated movie could look like. Watching it as a child, I was entranced by the movie’s gorgeous 2D drawings of the American West and its uncanny ability to capture the inner life of a herd of wild horses. As I grew older, I started to appreciate the film for its message. Spirit follows the story of the titular mustang, the leader of his herd, who is captured by wranglers and undergoes a series of trials bent on breaking his willpower and turning him into a workhorse. During his captivity he meets Little Creek, a Lakota man who is also struggling to protect his people from American encroachment. The film criticizes the American colonization of the West and the destruction of Native American culture by comparing it to Spirit’s subjugation at the hands of The Colonel, a soldier who is determined to destroy Spirit’s willpower at any cost. Even though Spirit eventually escapes captivity to run free with his family, it’s clear that his days are numbered. Civilization is coming, and the pristine land that he calls home will soon cease to exist.
As a children’s movie, Spirit had to walk a fine line in delivering its message. The movie never actually condemns America’s practice of “killing the Indian to save the man,” but every element of the story leads the viewer to that conclusion. From the first scenes of the film, we’re introduced to a beautiful untamed world where animals roam free and nature flourishes unhindered by humans. The film’s protagonists, Spirit and Little Creek, appreciate the land’s intrinsic value and wish to preserve it. The antagonists, the Colonel, the railroad company, and horse wranglers, want to mold the land to suit their liking. Determined to bring “civilization” to the West, they will enslave, kill, or eliminate anything that refuses to bow to their will. Distracted by beautifully designed horses and heart-pounding chase scenes, most children will completely miss the film’s subtext. Just because it’s subtle, however, doesn’t mean the movie’s message is ambiguous. The film is a clear refutation of Hollywood’s standard rose-colored take on the settling of the West. Just look at the movie’s opening scene:
In only a few sentences, the movie counters several myths of the American West. The first line disputes the idea that the West had no history before it was conquered by Americans. The second, that the West had no people before it was conquered by Americans. And the third, that the West was won by Americans, instead of taken away from the people who had inhabited it for so long. For the casual viewer, it’s a standard opening monologue. But for those who are paying attention, it’s like a key opening a door to a new perspective, letting the audience know that this is not the same old hero’s tale they’ve seen before.
Spirit is an exceptional movie because it plays with our expectations and asks us questions that other movies ignore. We sympathize with the conquered, not the conqueror. We are shown in great detail the amount of violence and disruption that went into the calmly named “settling” of the West. And we are forced to question the morality of things that we’ve been taught to take for granted, like the forced labor of animals, the development of open land, and the conquest of cultures that are dissimilar to our own. The movie’s greatest strength, of course, is that it hides all of this beneath the guise of an animated children’s movie. When pressed, it’s easy to say that Spirit is just a harmless movie for kids. All it takes is a glimpse below the surface to see it’s so much more than that.
Spirit isn’t the type of movie that movie studios like Dreamworks usually make, and the fact that it was released at all is kind of astonishing. Also astonishing is the fact that no conservative groups decried the film for any of the aforementioned ideas. Twenty years went by, and Spirit remained the same, untouched and untarnished. And then, this happened:
I could write a whole essay on why this trailer enrages me, but I’ll try to be concise. First, the new movie does away with the beautiful painterly aesthetic of the first movie in favor of the cheap 3D animation featured in such classics as The Boss Baby and Storks. Not only is it ugly, but it’s also infantilizing. This is the type of animation that says “this is a movie for babies. No deep thoughts to be had here.”
Second, it’s clear from the trailer that this movie takes place in a universe where the first movie never happened. Instead of further reckoning with questions about colonialism, the destruction of indigenous populations, or the effect of modern civilization on the West, the film has decided to take a much simpler and less controversial approach. Like the first, this will be a movie about freeing Spirit from some old meanies who want to capture him. Unlike the first, these meanies are just meanies, and this movie isn’t saying anything that can’t be understood by a toddler simultaneously jabbing at his mother’s iPhone.
Third, the movie is from the perspective of the settlers! While the first movie critiqued the inherent brutality of taming horses, this movie celebrates characters whose main occupation revolves around riding horses. While the first movie showed how the coming of the railroad disrupted the ecosystem and displaced native populations, this movie shows the main character joyously traveling on a train, with Spirit running blissfully along side of her. Kind of funny how he just showed up at that train when once he once risked his life to destroy it. The conflict in this movie is not about whether horses should be ridden, or whether the West should be conquered, or whether indigenous people have a right to exist in their homeland, but whether or not a 10-year-old girl can learn to ride a horse. And of course, it’s all set to “Wildest Dreams” by Taylor Swift, which hurts me on an even deeper level. This movie is completely antithetical to everything the first movie stood for. Spirit doesn’t get to run free. Instead, he gets to literally bow the knee to a little white girl.
Now you’re probably thinking that I’m getting a little too worked up about this silly horse movie. It’s all fun and games, and if it teaches little girls to feel empowered and adventurous, what’s wrong with that? If this was a different movie, there would be nothing wrong with that. But since it’s based off of Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, it feels like a slap in the face. And I should’ve seen it coming. After all, what’s more Hollywood than taking a movie that actually says something, stripping it for parts, and Frankensteining it into a 90 minute time suck that says nothing at all?
Okay, I’ll get off my soapbox now. Rant over.
If you’re interested in a more analytical discussion of the original film, check out this essay by Columbia College Chicago professor C. Richard King. I’m glad that scholars are focusing on the important things for once!