While computer animation has had a major impact on animated features, there have been several recent features that have made particularly good use of mixing traditional animation and new computer graphics techniques. Audiences will see this mixture put to work in a couple of weeks with "Treasure Planet", but for a better example of it, one might look to "Spirit", an exciting Western tale that actually has a non-speaking (thankfully) horse as a hero instead of a set of humans.
After a stellar opening stretch (there's even a 3-minute animated opening with no edits) where the audience is introduced to the characters through some breathtaking animation, Spirit is captured by a band of soldiers. Although an army colonel (voiced by James Cromwell) tries to break Spirit's, uh, spirit, the horse continues to try and break those who are holding him hostage. Eventually, he's set free by an Indian who was also captured by the army officers. While with the Indians, he also meets a love interest - a mare named Rain.
The animation is also utterly fantastic and really worth the price of admission. While other films have used computer animated elements to assist traditional animation, never have I seen it done in such a flawlesss manner. The film was also created in 2.35:1 widescreen, giving it a beautiful, epic feel; the way the shots are composed really puts the whole widescreen frame to use in a terrific way. The horses don't talk, but are animated in a way that the viewer still understands completely what they're thinking. Some scenes are so well done that they are surprisingly moving and emotional.
However, the film does have a few faults. There are plenty of songs by Bryan Adams, all of which are alarmingly awful, full of obvious lyrics. Thankfully, there's also Hans Zimmer's excellent score to balance out the soundtrack. The other fault, which is a surprise, is that Matt Damon's narration is rather bland. Some parts of the story also seemed a little repetitive. Lastly, this is more a film for older children, as some scenes may scare younger ones.
I didn't know quite what to expect from "Spirit", but I really liked it. The animation is spectacular, the lack of dialogue works and although the songs are incredibly cheesy, the movie often rises above them. Recommended.
VIDEO: "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron" is presented by Dreamworks in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. This is a truly magnificent transfer that does justice to the phenomenal work of the animation team. Sharpness and detail are extraordinary throughout, with the images offering consistently excellent clarity and detail.
As for flaws, I couldn't find any. No edge enhancement was visible throughout the presentation, while the print showed no noticable flaws. No artifacts or any other faults were noticed, either. The film's rich, vivid color palette was reproduced with striking smoothness throughout, as no smearing or other faults were seen. Black level was solid, as well. Definitely a reference quality presentation from Dreamworks.
SOUND: "Spirit" is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 for Dreamworks. While it's unusual for a title from the studio not to include a DTS soundtrack, the Dolby Digital presentation serves the movie just fine. Surrounds are put into play for much of the movie; while their use is largely to reinforce Zimmer's score and add a bit of light ambience, they occasionally are put to use to offer some nice sound effects. Audio quality was terrific, as the score sounded rich and full, while sound effects and the occasional dialogue/narration sounded crisp and clear.
Commentary: The DVD includes a commentary from directors Lorna Cook and Kelly Asbury, who are joined by producer Mireille Soria. While this is a pleasant enough affair, I eventually started to get a little tired of the constant "happy talk" between some interesting discussions of the details of the animation process.
Featurettes: There are three short featurettes, "Learn To Draw Spirit", "Animating Spirit" and "The Music of Spirit". While rather short in length, these are the usual Dreamworks supplements - the studio has a nice way of adding in some story details about the film in these promotional featurettes, but they focus the majority of their running time on providing quality explanations - both through visuals and interviews - of how many of the film's major sequences were accomplished. The "animating Spirit" piece is the most interesting of the three, although the "Learn to Draw" piece may be fun for kids.
Storyboards: The complete storyboards are offered for: "Spirit's Capture", "The Colonel Rides Spirit", "Train Wreck" and "Spirit and Little Creek Jump the Canyon". Optional commentary is also included with these storyboards.
Also: Production notes.
DVD-ROM: While I'm not usually too concerned with the kind of features found on the DVD-ROM portion of most titles, there is one incredibly cool area on the DVD-ROM section of "Spirit". Called "Make A Movie", it's an amazing little editing tool that allows the viewer to put together a sequence from many scenes in the movie, or put the animated characters into a background - I imported some pictures of scenery I took, for example. These scenes can be merged with a lot of different sound effects and saved, as well. Although the editing program required some software to be downloaded, the whole process was very easy. Also found in the ROM section are additional games and an area where kids can make their own mini-movie posters for the mini-film they create with the editing software.
Final Thoughts: "Spirit" wasn't flawless, but I found it to be a beautifully animated and moving film that I found highly enjoyable. The DVD provides stunning video quality, very good audio and several fun supplements. A definite recommendation.