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Hold onto your spurs! A lively, intelligent, and spirited bronc just busted into the family-animation scene. Some critics hail it as the best animated animal story since Disney's The Lion King. I disagree. On many levels, I found Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron to be far better.

A horsy Braveheart meets The Man from Snowy River, and learns about love and loyalty along the trail.

"Spirit" -- prosaically called "Mustang" by humans throughout most-a the flick-a -- grows to adulthood on the wild, 1880s-era American frontier. Set against the backdrop of the Indian conflict and the white men's efforts to unite East and West coasts with the "Iron Horse," the story chronicles the adventures of an indomitable mustang stallion as he encounters men of all hues, their cultures, their agendas and their machines.

Ambitiously, the screenplay eschews the talking-animal schtick, and instead portrays the horses' gestures and natural sounds to communicate with humans and with each other. Exaggerated facial expressions can be forgiven in light of the witty and often hilarious non-verbal communication that results. In fact, the humor works on adult as well as children's levels without delving into the innuendo that's a common crutch of children's animated films.

The vocal talents of Matt (Good Will Hunting) Damon as the narrator, James (Sum of All Fears) Cromwell as the cavalry colonel and silver-screen newcomer Daniel Studi as the Lakota brave provide most of the dialogue. Kudos to screenwriter John (Young Guns) Fusco for writing narration that enhances and informs without being intrusive or annoying.

The plaintive singing style of Bryan ("(Everything I Do) I Do It For You") Adams, and the moving orchestral score written by Hans (Gladiator) Zimmer hit just the right notes to capture the stallion's moods.

However, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron contains some flaws that, collectively, caused me to dock half a point.

For instance, two major plot points required me to suspend a great deal of disbelief in order to accept that any horse could have pulled off the stunts in question -- let alone survived the incidents. Perhaps the filmmakers hope the audience will become so engrossed in rooting for the under-horse to notice; therefore, I refrain from revealing them here.

Fusco also relies upon the tiresome "Noble Savage versus Evil White Man" myth to generate conflict, although a moment of redemption displayed by the "evil white man" saves that plot thread from plunging into trite, maudlin political correctness. This is, after all, a family movie, and thankfully the filmmakers don't lose sight of that objective.

So, round up your young-uns and herd them into the theater to see Spirit for yourselves. Just don't dare try to ride him.

Kim D. Headlee

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