Take away Hans Zimmer's self-important score and the endless parade of gratingly whiney (or should I say whinny?) soundtrack anthems by 1980s blue-collar rocker Bryan Adams, and "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron" has the heart of a winning animated mini-epic about a proud young mustang in the vast expanses of the Old West.
Gorgeously painted in scenic sunset and columbine field watercolors, and narrated (by Matt Damon) from the horse's point of view, it is a grand adventure that encompasses cowboys and Indians, the U.S. cavalry and the western charge of the railroad. But the music is like a lasso around the picture's neck, preventing the story from running free (which is ironically what most of the songs are about) and dating it so badly that the film doesn't have a chance of standing the test of time.
After a few brief scenes of Spirit as a playful pony, story proper begins when the handsome brown bronco is captured by the Cavalry and taken to a fort where a Custer-like commander (voiced by James Cromwell) resolves to break him and make him a soldier's mount. An amusing corral sequence follows as the defiant, determined Spirit bucks, kicks and throws rider after rider.
The horse soon escapes with the help of Little Creek (Daniel Studi), a Lakota brave also captured by the soldiers, and the two form a bond as they return to the Indian's tribe.
Although he's attracted to a foxy blonde-maned, blue-eyed mare (oh, please!), Spirit longs to return to his heard. But an attack on the Lakota by the Cavalry puts the stallion and his two-legged pal on the run again, leading to a recapture and a rousing, action-packed, amazingly animated finale involving a railroad locomotive and a forest fire.
Written by John Fusco ("Young Guns," "Thunderheart") and directed by the DreamWorks animation team of Kelly Asbury and Lorna Cook (veterans of "The Prince of Egypt," the studio's first feature cartoon), "Spirit" overcomes several problems -- like the fact that it glosses over an apparent massacre of the Lakota -- to become quite captivating, sincere, symbolic and respectful of nature and all the cultures it depicts (even the colonel has a good side).
It's just a pity the soundtrack is such an assault on the ears that it makes this otherwise elegant, enjoyable film truly difficult to sit through.