Byline: John Horn
By DreamWorks' own high-tech "Shrek"-y standards, its new film "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron" looks like an antique. A hand-drawn, two-dimensional eagle soars through the sky, swoops down canyon walls and climbs above a prairie full of wild horses. Scores of animators spent three years creating the seven-minute opening sequence, painstakingly sketching the bird's wing beats frame by frame. Once upon a time, all animated films were made this way. But in an age where any computer jockey with a souped-up Mac can turn out smartass donkeys and furry monsters in far less time, "Spirit's" attention to painterly detail seems quaint.
Two summer movies--"Spirit" (opening this week) and "Lilo & Stitch" (June 21) from Disney--are challenging the conventional wisdom that only gee-whiz technology attracts audiences--especially the teens who used to avoid animation like study hall. In the last seven years, computer animation has transformed moviemaking, creating hyperrealistic 3-D fantasy worlds. Audiences have grown so enraptured with the "Shrek" and "Monsters, Inc." techniques that even low-rent computer titles like "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius" can rival expensive, traditionally animated films like "Atlantis." In fact, not since 1999's "Tarzan" has an old-school animated film made a box-office dent.
That makes "Spirit" and "Lilo" look like big risks. But their novelty is old-fashioned animation, with beautifully rich images and good storytelling. Yet for all its retro design, "Spirit" actually represents a delicate marriage of the hand and the computer. While the eagle is mostly crafted with pencil and ink, the surrounding geography is far more pixel than paintbrush. "It's the single most complex shot ever produced, period," boasts DreamWorks cofounder Jeffrey Katzenberg of that eagle's-eye-view opening sequence. …