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. …