CAST: Isabela Merced, Jake Gyllenhaal, Marsai Martin, Mckenna Grace, Julianne Moore, Walton Goggins, Eiza González, Andre Braugher, Lucian Perez, Joe Hart, Lew Temple, Gary Anthony Williams
RUNNING TIME: 88 mins
BASICALLY…: A young girl (Merced) bonds with a horse named Spirit, and must protect her new friend from harm…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
Continuing the trend of DreamWorks Animation follow-ups finally coming out long after the original, Spirit Untamed is a bit of an oddity. While it obviously shares some DNA with the studio’s 2002 2D-animated film Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, this new film is actually intended to be a big-screen reimagining of Netflix’s animated spin-off series Spirit Riding Free, featuring many of the same characters and locations as the show but in a more contained feature-length structure and with a noticeably larger budget.
Since I’ve not seen any episodes of the show (which I didn’t even know existed until this movie was announced), alongside the fact that it’s been many, many years since I saw the original animated film and only remember fleeting details about it – Matt Damon provided narration as the titular horse, there was a soundtrack by Bryan Adams, and that’s about it – I don’t have the clearest knowledge going into Spirit Untamed, though I don’t think that’s too much of a problem since this movie is not made for adults like myself. Young girls with horse obsessions are clearly the target demographic, and they will most likely get the most out of this movie; anyone else need not apply, unless you’re accompanying said horse-fixated girls to the cinema, and are in dire need for them to be distracted for an hour and a half.
Set sometime in the 1800s, a young girl named Lucky Prescott (Isabela Merced) is sent to live with her father Jim (Jake Gyllenhaal) for the summer in the old frontier town of Miradero. There, she manages to befriend a wild mustang named Spirit, against the wishes of her father whose wife, and Lucky’s mother, Milagro (Eiza González) was killed many years ago while riding a horse. However, when Spirit and his herd are in danger of being rounded up by a local gang of horse wranglers, led by a man named Hendricks (Walton Goggins), Lucky and her new human friends Pru (Marsai Martin) and Abigail (Mckenna Grace) head out on a mission to stop the wranglers and save the horses.
Again, I have no idea if this is what the show is like, but even if it isn’t, Spirit Untamed really does have the feel of an extended episode of a television series. The story moves along pretty fast so that it can get to the next act break before too long, leaving certain developments either rushed through or dangerously underdeveloped; Lucky and her father, who haven’t seen each other for at least ten years, barely have any scenes together despite their fractured relationship forming a large part of the characters’ emotional arc, while the film’s climax is paced so fast that there are barely any breaks in between the big moments, be they heartfelt or action-heavy. Many of the characters, too, feel like blank foundations intended for future writers to build upon throughout the course of a series, with many showing basic personalities here but not much else; if this were simply a TV pilot instead of a theatrical movie, there would have been some leeway because there’d have been time and room for a writer’s room to properly develop and expand upon these characters, but in a standalone film like this it’s more distracting how basic and underdeveloped a lot of the people are in this.
The animation is decent, with some exterior shots looking rather nice, though it’s one of those animated movies where the characters have unrealistically sized heads, large bulbous eyes and stick-thin bodies that make them look like walking, talking bobbleheads (and I know it’s supposed to be a cartoon, but is there nobody in the animation department to give these designs a slightly less silly overall look?). Also not bad is the voice cast, which contains a surprising amount of names playing characters who honestly could have been played by just about anybody; it just so happens that they got recognisable actors like Jake Gyllenhaal, Julianne Moore (as the main character’s pointless aunt), Walton Goggins and Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Andre Braugher to voice them, obviously not wasting a single cent of the provided budget they’ve been given.
Ultimately, Spirit Untamed exists just because it can. Fans of the original film might not be too happy about the radical shifts in tone, mood and animation style, not to mention how Spirit himself feels like a supporting character in a movie named after him, while anyone who has actually watched the Netflix show may probably feel just as indifferent to it as they were the actual show, so I’m not sure why this needed to be made in the first place, other than to remind people that Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron was once a thing. At least there’s no Bryan Adams on the soundtrack, though.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Spirit Untamed is an oddly detached spin-off of both the classic DreamWorks Animation film and the obscure Netflix show it’s much more based on, with its underdeveloped story and characters making it feel like an extended episode than a satisfying standalone, made only to promote the IP and nothing more.