Technically, horses are one of the most difficult animals for animators to bring to life. They have a stiff spine and numerous complicated gaits. But in conceiving an epic tale about the Old West, told from the equine point of view, the Dreamworks animation crew faced much more than technical hurdles in creating "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron," opening in theaters today.
A far bigger worry was the ghost of Mister Ed, the talking horse from the 1960s sitcom.
"No matter what you did in trying to make the horses talk," says director Kelly Asbury, "it would look comical or silly like Mister Ed. We wanted to preserve the dignity of these animals."
A key decision was made: The horses would not talk. This set the tone for the film.
"We wanted to tell a story that was fundamentally dramatic; we didn't want to trivialize it," says studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg.
The 82-minute story moves forward through a combination of voice-over narration provided by actor Matt Damon and a lush mix of music from film composer Hans Zimmer and singer-songwriter Bryan Adams.
"This really is a silent movie," Mr. Zimmer says. The music had to convey a vast story set in the Old American West. "My admiration really goes out to those [musicians] in the old movie houses. They had a whole story to tell."
Mr. Katzenberg says he came up with the idea for the tale after being inspired by the history of what he calls the unique relationship between horse and man. That relationship was particularly important in the American West the horse is a prominent part of our nation's popular western mythology.
"Horses are one of our most magnificent creatures ... and there is a long history of connectedness between man and horse," Katzenberg says. "The movie is an allegory. We all see in the horse something of ourselves. There is some part of us that would like to run free through the wide open plains."
The vision, he says, was to include the majesty of the vast, western landscapes. "This world of the American West has not been used in an animated film, and we wanted to tell a story that was a great action adventure set during that key period of our history, when the West was being settled."
The film opens with a sweeping journey through these landscapes. The animation crews took field trips to study the terrain in eight national parks, including Yellowstone, the Teton Mountains, Brice Canyon, and Monument Valley. Production designer Kathy Altieri says boss Katzenberg gave them a clear direction.
"He told us, 'I want this to be the most fantastic animation sequence in film history.' " The film combines traditional two-dimensional cell animation and 3-D computer graphics to create worlds, sweeping through vast canyons and meadows and showing the power of animation to transport an audience to a new world.
The film is surprisingly earnest in tone, unlike recent animated successes such as "Shrek" or "Ice Age," both of which are full of wise-cracking critters and sarcastic humans.
This tone, Katzenberg says, is deliberately straightforward and sincere. He says he believes audiences are ripe for a return to emotional films in the spirit of the Disney classic "Bambi." He attributes this sea change to the post-9/11 environment.
"I'm ready for a more heartfelt experience," says Katzenberg, who cofounded Dreamworks with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen. "I think audiences are too, and this film is exhilarating. It will, I hope, touch their hearts."