The story of How the West Was Won has been told in hundreds of westerns. More recently cinema has reinterpreted history, from the Native American perspective, as How the West Was Lost. But Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron may be the first film to tell the story from the point of view of a character that played a central role on both sides - the horse.
That is not the only area in which Spirit is breaking new ground. Horses are notoriously difficult to draw and DreamWorks, the company that had such a huge success with Shrek, claims Spirit is the first animated film to feature a horse as its protagonist.
The equine characters were painstakingly painted by hand, but the film also uses the latest technology to produce what is effectively a hybrid between traditional cartoons and the new generation of computer-animated films, such as Shrek and Toy Story. The two techniques are known in the industry respectively as 2D and 3D, so maybe Spirit is 2½D.
Producer Jeffrey Katzenberg, the former Disney boss who set up DreamWorks with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, insists hand-drawn characters have greater intimacy. He compares them to a hand-written letter and computer-animation to email, though he predicts traditional animation as such will be dead within a few years.
Not that he thinks that is cause for concern. "The computer is the friend of the animator," he says. "It’s not in any fashion, shape or form replacing the animator... William Shakespeare wrote with a quill pen and Hemingway typed on a typewriter. It doesn’t make the creativity any less artistic.
"The computer is becoming more and more powerful as a creative tool put in the hands of artists to realise their dreams."
Spirit is not the first film to combine 2D and 3D, but in the past such combinations have usually used hand-drawn characters and computer-generated landscapes or background figures, whereas Spirit is more ambitious in switching between the two.
Images of Spirit running with his herd were produced through computer animation, which is adept at movement. When he stops the film switches seamlessly to 2D. A train being pulled up a hill was created using the old method, but when it careens down the hill the computer came into play.
From Disney to the "United Nations of Animation"
Katzenberg has seen enormous changes during his career. Walt Disney Studios were going through a lean period when he took over in the Eighties. By the end of the decade the intense, balding studio boss, who seems more like a banker than film-maker, had turned the ailing operation around.
Beauty and the Beast looked like a marriage of Disney and Shakespeare, Aladdin brilliantly tapped into the anarchic humour of Robin Williams, and The Lion King really was a marriage of Disney and Shakespeare, becoming the highest-grossing animated film of all time.
Then Katzenberg and Disney fell out and he set up DreamWorks, taking responsibility for its animated films. But the new company faced major problems in challenging Disney.
"We created DreamWorks seven and a half years ago and obviously had to start from scratch," he says. "It was a time in which Disney pretty much had a monopoly on talent." DreamWorks, says Katzenberg, was forced to look all over the world for animators. "Today we have about 55 or 60 animators at DreamWorks and we refer to it as the United Nations of Animation.
"That’s been a very great creative contribution to our movies." The senior supervising animator on Spirit is English, but Katzenberg says they have also been heavily influenced by the Japanese anime style. "We just try and keep our eyes and ears open for finding new techniques and new styles."
The Lion King was Hamlet with lions; Spirit is Dances with Horses, the story of a horse that deserts the US cavalry and takes up with the Indians. Spirit combines Katzenberg’s enthusiasm for animation, westerns, horses and the basic principle of freedom.
"What I realised is that by the time the movie came out it would be a decade since there had been a fable, a story told through animals, and to me some of the greatest animated movies ever made were fables," he says. "The Lion King in fact was the last one, and so that was really the genesis that started me thinking about it... That then led to creating an adventure story set in the American West of the 1800s."
The idea of talking horses was dismissed as "silly" and their thoughts and feelings are expressed through Matt Damon’s voice-over narrative and Bryan Adams’s songs. Katzenberg says he was aiming to avoid taking sides between the white and Native American characters, though the former come over as arrogant and the latter as comparatively laid-back.
In the best tradition of Aesop, Spirit has an important message to impart. "I was born in the United States in 1950 and have lived in the world in which I’ve never imagined anything other than freedom," says Katzenberg. "It’s something that I’ve taken for granted and I think many of us do...Spirit is born into a world of perfect, idyllic freedom... It’s not until he loses it that he actually understands just how much it means to him.
"It’s a powerful and timeless theme and one that I think that we all can relate to. Obviously it has a different connotation post September 11 than it did when we started it four years ago."
It is a theme stripped down to the basics in this tale of Indian braves, soldiers blue and a horse that just has to do what a horse has to do.