“Spirit Untamed” stars Isabela Merced, Jake Gyllenhaal, Marsai Martin, Mckenna Grace, Walton Goggins, Eiza González, Andre Braugher, and Julianne Moore. Released on June 4, 2021, the film is about a young girl who befriends a wild mustang.
The film features the directorial debuts of Elaine Bogan and Ennio Torresan Jr. Bogan is known for directing episodes of DreamWorks Animation shows like “DreamWorks Dragons”, “Trollhunters”, and “3Below”. Torresan Jr. is a story artist for films like “Kung Fu Panda”, “Megamind”, and “Penguins of Madagascar”. It is based on the television series Spirit Riding Free created by Aury Wallington. It also serves as a spin-off of the 2002 animated film “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron”. It looks like another piece of nostalgia has returned to fill my mind with child-like wonder, and it’s in a shape of a horse. Out of all of the DreamWorks Animation films that were made, I never would’ve expected something like “Spirit” to span a franchise of its own. “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” was released when 2D animation was on its last legs, and 3D animation was starting to become the new norm for the genre, particularly films made for kids. While it didn’t set the box office on fire, the film gained some decent reviews from critics and audiences and was nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar. Fifteen years later, DreamWorks Animation decided to reintroduce the titular horse to a new generation via a CGI-animated series for Netflix titled “Spirit Riding Free”. The series, which centered on the horse and his misadventures with a girl named Lucky Prescott, spawned eight seasons, two spin-off shows, and two television specials for the streaming service. Its success led the studio to develop a feature-length film based on the series. I was around eight years old when “Spirit” was released. I managed to see it in the theater with my mother because I enjoy anything animation-related, and she enjoys horses. It was a match made in heaven for us. While it has been a while since I last watched it, I remembered liking it for its animation and story. Plus, it had Matt Damon narrating the horse’s inner thoughts. That’s right. The Oscar-winning actor who portrayed Jason Bourne and starred in acclaimed films like “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Departed” was in a family film about a horse. Talk about having a sense of variety in his filmography. That alone was the main reason I looked forward to seeing the horse back on the big screen. I was also able to find the time to binge-watch the Netflix show to get a clear sense of what I should expect from the film. With that said, let’s see if this animated adventure is as spiritual as the titular horse.
The story centers on Fortuna “Lucky” Prescott (Merced), a carefree young girl who grows up in an East Coast city with her Aunt Cora (Moore). Her recent escapade caused Cora to pack up and move them back to a small frontier town called Miradero, where Lucky’s father Jim (Gyllenhaal) resides. Because a rural town is a perfect place for kids to cause less trouble compared to the city. Lucky feels unimpressed with her new home in Miradero, but all that changes when she encounters a mustang named Spirit, who’s as wild and free as she is. She also made friends with two local horseback riders, Abigail Stone (Grace) and Pru Granger (Martin). When a horse wrangler named Hendricks (Goggins) and his crew plan to capture Spirit and his herd and sell them off to slavery, Lucky and her new friends embark on a dangerous journey to rescue the horses. The film serves as a retelling of the show, complete with a higher budget and plenty of character redesigns. On the one hand, this idea should suit well for casual viewers, particularly people who grew up with Spirit but don’t have a Netflix account to watch the show. On the other hand, it has that sense of unoriginality that might turn away some of the show’s fans who were expecting the film to continue the source material with an inventive big-scale plot. To them, it’s along the lines of rewatching the series with a new coat of paint. I should know because Aury Wallington, the creator of “Spirit Riding Free”, was one of the film’s screenwriters. Admittedly, it had some other changes to make itself stand apart from the source material. Still, in terms of the execution of its story and characters, they weren’t enough to compensate for this questionable strategy by the studio. This is almost similar to Hollywood’s attempt to remake the first season of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” as a condensed feature film. They both have potential in reintroducing the products to a new generation via film but lacked the core strengths of their source materials to justify their existence. While “Spirit Untamed” didn’t have the same type of badness as M. Night Shyamalan’s adaptation of the hit Nickelodeon series, it is still a pale and uninventive imitation of the show’s first season. Now I wouldn’t call it a horrible kids movie as it had a few charming moments that young children and horse lovers will enjoy, such as the titular horse. However, I will say that by DreamWorks Animation standards, it was a surprisingly disappointing addition to its animation lineup. The story was highly simplistic to the point where you know what will happen next and a bit too safe for those who wanted more complexity in its storytelling and themes. Plus, as I stated earlier, it’s the first season of “Spirit Riding Free” in movie form…with some changes, of course. It did offer some cuteness and chuckles in its main characters, along with its respectable message about never giving up. Unfortunately, its short runtime and inability to provide strong emotion and development in its themes kept the story from earning its wild nature. In other words, adorableness doesn’t always work as a substitute for good storytelling, and “Spirit Untamed” is a fine example of that. The voice cast serves as one of the charming aspects of every DreamWorks Animation film, and this film is no different. In the show, Lucky, Pru, and Abigail were voiced by Amber Frank, Sydney Park, and Bailey Gambertoglio, respectively. In the film, they’re voiced by Isabela Merced (formerly known as Isabela Moner), Marsai Martin from “Black-ish”, and Mckenna Grace. All three of these young actresses did a splendid job with capturing the likability and humor of the characters from the show in terms of their vocal performances, particularly Merced as Lucky. Despite a couple of hits and misses in her films, I’m still happy that the young actress is continuing to impress me with her talent, whether she’s playing a character or voicing one. I liked Lucky from “Spirit Riding Free” because of her fearless and relatable personality, which inspires young kids to be brave and do the right thing, no matter how tough things get. Her character is the same Lucky we know and love in “Spirit Untamed”, which I liked, but again, because of its 84-minute runtime and storytelling, her development in the movie wasn’t thoughtful enough to match her coming-of-age journey in the show. Jake Gyllenhaal and Julianne Moore were also good in their roles as Jim Prescott and Aunt Cora, respectively. Walton Goggins as the film’s villain Hendricks, on the other hand, was pretty forgettable. The characters overall, while appealing in their own right, were very subpar as they fell victim to the story’s formulaic trappings, especially Jim’s “overprotective dad” personality. I didn’t mind some of its formulaic plot elements. I was hoping that the filmmakers would deliver a much better narrative to make them meaningful. The film’s animation was provided by Jellyfish Pictures, the same animation company that worked on the television special, “How to Train Your Dragon: Homecoming”. All I can say about it was that it looked decent enough to showcase some gorgeous locations and suitable character designs. It’s not as highly detailed, creative, and stunning as the other films from DreamWorks Animation, but it’s not as poor-quality as the animation in the show, so there’s that.
Overall, for something that’s supposed to be as wild as the title suggested, “Spirit Untamed” is surprisingly tame. As a feature-length adaptation of the Netflix show, it’s an uninspired and derivative retelling of the source material’s first season despite some of its changes. As a follow-up to the 2002 Oscar-nominated animated film, it’s a huge downgrade that failed to recapture the energy and heart that made its predecessor special in the first place. Despite its enjoyable voice cast and solid animation, the film was broken down by its unoriginal plot, mediocre characters, short runtime, and thin storytelling. While I didn’t hate the film entirely, I will say that this is by far the weakest film in the DreamWorks Animation library. If you want a more tolerable reintroduction to “Spirit”, I would recommend the Netflix show “Spirit Riding Free”. Sure, the animation is as cheap as a $2 pencil, but it had enough charm and development in its characters and stories to provide a fun and heartfelt experience for people of all ages. The film did have heart in some places as well as its spirit, but not enough for me to recommend it to die-hard Spirit fans and animation fans alike. It’s an okay diversion for kids who are too young to see “The Conjuring” and people who love horses. Otherwise, you’re better off watching the show or the 2002 film.