Movie review throwback: “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron,” a masterpiece ahead of its time 

“Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron,”

4.5/5 ****

“Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” (2002), directed by Kelly Asbury and Lorna Cook, is an animated western film about a headstrong mustang who must find his way home to his herd after being captured by the U.S. military. On his journey, he befriends a young Lakota man named Little Creek (Daniel Studi), who ends up naming the wild horse Spirit Who Could Not Be Broken. On top of this film’s beautiful animation and incredible soundtrack, the story itself is so powerful. Through the perspective of a wild mustang, the film addresses American colonialism and Native genocide during westward expansion. The character of Spirit is meant to parallel the struggles Native Americans experienced during American colonialism and westward expansion.  

The way the film addresses American colonialism is surprisingly well done. It is rare for a movie, and a kid’s movie at that, to depict the U.S. army as the villains. The film’s main antagonist is a colonel (James Cromwell), who is inspired by Lieutenant Colonel George Custer. Custer played a major role in the suppression and genocide of Native Americans, and the colonel in the film is no different. In one scene, we see him lead an attack on a Lakota village and nearly kill Little Creek. This scene subverts and completely flips the narrative, too often seen in westerns, where the “savage” Indigenous people are the ones attacking the heroic Americans. “Spirit” accurately portrays the Americans as the violent and villainous group that ruthlessly attacked and oppressed Indigenous people. 

 When Spirit is captured by U.S. soldiers and brought to a military base, there are stark parallels to what Indigenous people experienced in residential schools. When Spirit first enters the military base, he witnesses a group of horses being ridden in formation, having been assimilated into the army. He is then tied up and has his long mane cut short, his hooves cleaned and horseshoes put on. The soldiers then saddle him up and take turns riding him, trying to be the one to break Spirit. When he fights back, Spirit is abused, tortured and nearly killed. Spirit’s experience at the base has a lot of similarities to what Indigenous children experienced in residential schools, where, after being separated by force from their communities, their long hair was cut short, their names were changed and they were forced to wear American clothing. The purpose of these schools was to erase Indigenous culture by forcing children to assimilate to white culture. They were horrifically abused if they resisted, resulting in survivors having severe psychological trauma. The fact that the film shows a group of U.S. soldiers literally trying to break a horse named Spirit is a not-so-subtle parallel to the number of people whose spirits were systematically broken down through years of abuse and dehumanization. 

 After Spirit is recaptured by the military, he and other horses taken from the Lakota village are forced to pull a steam locomotive, connecting the Transcontinental Railroad. Spirit’s actions in this scene have a lot of similarities to Native Americans’ reaction to the Transcontinental Railroad. When Spirit realizes that the railway is heading in the direction of the home of his herd, he frees himself and the other horses and derails the locomotive. When the Transcontinental railway was being built, Indigenous people would attack the workers to try and stop the construction that threatened their way of life and existence. 

The way the story is told is incredibly well done. Because the main character of the film is a horse, a majority of the film is told through the whinnies and body language of the horses, rather than traditional dialogue. The only time the horses communicate in English is when Spirit’s inner thoughts (voiced by Matt Damon) narrate the scene for clarification. Personally, I think that part is unnecessary. The film already does an amazing job using wordless storytelling, and the Matt Damon narration only reinforces what the viewer can easily figure out from the sounds and body language of the horses. The film’s music is also great. The score by Hans Zimmer, as well as the soundtrack by Bryan Adams, are extremely emotional and powerful. Finally, the way the film is directed is incredible. Despite being a 2D-animated film, the shots are extremely alive. Some scenes incorporate 3D animation to make the film feel more dynamic; for example, the opening scene is a long take of a bald eagle flying over the western frontier. A scene like that would be nearly impossible to do well if it was done solely in 2D animation. 

Overall, this film is beautifully made and criminally underrated. From the emotional soundtrack to the more honest portrayal of American colonialism, this film was truly ahead of its time. From the music to the animation to the story, this is definitely worth a watch.