The belated spinoff to one of DreamWorks’ finest productions has spirit in name only

By: Steve Pulaski

Today’s kids are aware of Spirit through the Netflix series, Spirit Riding Free, which, to my amazement, has produced 12 seasons and 78 episodes over its four-year run. I’ve never seen the show, but judging by the film adaptation, Spirit Untamed, I’m not led to believe it possesses the same magic quite like the film that started it all.

Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron was released in 2002. It was budgeted like a conventional DreamWorks property, which is why we never did see a direct sequel after comparatively meager box office earnings. Moreover, it remains DreamWorks’ most beautiful, evocative motion picture to date. With minimal dialog and an emphasis on mood, it was a divine work that combined hand-drawn and CGI animation to produce utterly breathtaking landscapes. At the time, it was a marvel of character/animal design, not to mention being released in an era when animated movies weren’t always seeking to kickstart nine-figure franchises.

All that being said, I’m not surprised Spirit Untamed doesn’t match the creative nor narrative ambition of its predecessor, which is now old enough to vote. I am, however, rather stunned by its lack of imagination. From a terribly basic plot to an emphasis on sight-gags seeking cheap laughs, this is Spirit in name only, lacking the very ingredient that gave its title two distinct meanings.

We’re dropped in the town of Miradero, where Milagro Navarro (voiced by Eiza González), a fearless horseback stunt performer, wows onlookers, including her husband Jim (Jake Gyllenhaal) and young daughter Fortuna (Isabela Merced, Dora and the Lost City of Gold). A devastating accident — alluded to in the most G-rated manner conceivable — leaves Jim a grieving wreck and Fortuna, nicknamed “Lucky,” sent to live with her grandfather and Aunt Cora (Julianne Moore). Despite her elders’ teachings, she rejects the ways of a “proper young lady,” with the same sort of wild-child spirit that made her mother.

After an incident that leaves her grandfather’s political career in jeopardy, Lucky, now 12-years-old, returns to Miradero to live with Jim. She makes friends, Pru (Marsai Martin, Little) and Abigail (McKenna Grace, Anabelle Comes Home), and ostensibly finds her place in the world when she connects with Spirit, a kiger mustang with a headstrong attitude. But Lucky isn’t the only one with eyes for Spirit. A gang of horse wranglers have plans to haul Spirit and a plethora of horses off to be thankless laborers. Lucky convinces Pru and Abigail to embark on a treacherous journey through mountains and terrains in order to save Spirit’s family.

Where Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron dazzled with its then-unique blend of contemporary and classic animation, Spirit Untamed shows DreamWorks was far stingier with their budget this time around. Production designer Paul Duncan (Abominable) and the crop of animators’ work shines when the focus is on the horses and the accompanying rustic landscapes. A sequence involving Lucky struggling to gain her footing while Spirit precariously gallops alongside a rocky ridge is actually harrowing in its suspense. The lighting and textures of said landscapes are impressive to boot.

It all falls apart, however, when the humans get involved. The animation on the humans is particularly unattractive, resembling an early-2010s direct-to-Nickelodeon affair. It’s distracting enough to make the experience far less majestic, officially robbing the story of its emotional impact by including a plethora of silly gags such as Aunt Cora wading through a pasture of cows and Abigail singing “come together” songs while riding horseback.

Sure to annoy a plethora of people is Aury Wallington and Kristin Hahn’s screenplay making a point to highlight Lucky’s half-Latina background and then proceed not to contextualize it outside of a few Spanish interjections. This is a quasi girl-empowerment tale that never finds a meaningful message save for the usual clichés of blazing your own trail and not letting the opinions of others handicap your personality. In short, there’s nothing you or your child will retain for very long after the credits roll.

Spirit Untamed certainly didn’t captivate the audience at my showing. In a showing with about eight kids, few of them sat still for any duration of time. Had this regurgitation of Spirit possessed the arresting qualities of Stallion of the Cimarron, I wonder if the kids would’ve been more patient with it. Maybe not. But everyone including tired parents would’ve seen a better movie at least.

NOTE: Spirit Untamed is now showing in theaters.

Grade: D+

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