The use of computers in animation has revolutionised a genre that was already rich in imagination and ideas. If Jungle Book and Bambi were masterpieces of the old school, the computer-generated Toy Story 1 and 2, followed by Shrek and Monsters Inc went off the Richter scale of artistic achievement. To call them animated works of genius would definitely be no exaggeration.
Having reached such an exalted state, the problem for Dreamworks and Pixar, the dynamic duo of computer animation, is where to go next. Somewhat surprisingly Dreamworks has gone back to basics, at least partially, with Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, claiming to be the ultimate marriage of old and new techniques.
On the one hand, it is painterly and character-led; on the other, it makes free with computer-generated imagery to enhance the drama and give it that 3D look that all animated features have to have now.
The story is a Wild West reworking of the classic Black Beauty in which a free range stallion is captured and pressed into service by the military. But our four-legged hero will not be broken and he manages to escape with the help of a friendly Lakota Indian boy, who names him Spirit.
Oh yes, and Spirit falls in love with a beautiful mare named Rain to the accompaniment of some moody warbling by pop singer Bryan Adams.
Over and above its technical prowess, two things distinguish Spirit from other recent animated features. One is that it depends on drama rather than humour to hold its audience – there are no gags or pratfalls – and the other is that the horses don’t speak.
Through gesture, expression and a soundtrack of neighs, whinnies, snorts and grunts, the audience gets a crash course in horsespeak. The makers started off with talking horses, but, as the director is quoted as saying, ‘You just can’t take a talking horse seriously’.
Knowing next to nothing about horses myself, I am no guide as to the accuracy of representation. But I can tell you that after 90 minutes in the company of Spirit, who is on-screen from start to finish, I did feel as if I’d learnt everything there is to know about equine sound and movement.
The film’s Wild West setting provides a vast opportunity for majestic landscapes. While the colours sometimes seem a little garish, the evocation of the Mid-West’s wide open spaces is often breathtaking, most notably in the three-minute opening sequence where we follow the flight of an eagle across canyons, lakes and mountains.
There are other remarkable set pieces, where the combination of 2D and 3D imagery is used to stunning effect, such as the spectacle of Spirit hurtling down the side of a hill with a runaway steam train in hot pursuit. The train starts off as a 2D painted element, but once it breaks free and careers down the hill it becomes a 3D computer-animated object, giving the sequence a far stronger dramatic impact.
Once again it seems Dreamworks has come up with something that will appeal to audiences of all ages, while at the same time exploring new ways of telling a story. Animation hasn’t been this exciting since Walt Disney set up shop in the 1920s.
Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron goes on general release in cinemas nationwide on 5 July