When DreamWorks’ Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron came out almost 20 years ago, critics praised the film for its breathtaking animation and deft merging of traditional 2D drawings and newer 3D technology. Some also, I think unfairly, bemoaned the clichés in its straightforward narrative of a wild Kiger mustang stallion in the American West refusing to be tamed by either blood-thirsty white colonizers or compassionate indigenous people. The film was light on dialogue and heavy on plot-moving music cues (Bryan Adams to be exact), but its simplicity made it distinctive and emotionally resonant.
In Spirit Untamed, the second feature and most recent chapter of the franchise, DreamWorks retrofits Spirit and his family of wild horses for a new generation of viewers by mostly ditching traditional drawings in favor of 3D technology, shifting perspectives and embracing a more detailed narrative. Unfortunately, the results are somewhat disappointing — this Spirit has neither the charm of the original film nor the novelty of recent rival animated works such as Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon.
A hollowed-out version of the original.
For those who’ve been following the Spirit franchise, which includes Netflix series Spirit Riding Free and a handful of video games, this version of the stallion’s story won’t come as a surprise. The film’s screenplay is based on the show by Aury Wallington (who shares a writing credit with Kristin Hahn here), which recasts Spirit as a “best friend” to 12-year-old Lucky Prescott. The two share a unique bond in their rebellious nature and quest to forge their own paths.
Directed by Elaine Bogan with help from Ennio Torresan, Jr., Spirit Untamed opens with Lucky’s mother, Milagro Navarro (Eiza González), performing a horse-riding stunt that leads to her death. The incident shakes Lucky’s father, Jim (Jake Gyllenhaal), who, in a grief-stricken state, sends baby Lucky off to live with her railroad baron grandfather (Joe Hart) and aunt, Cora (Julianne Moore).
Fast forward a decade, now-pre-teen Lucky (Isabela Merced) is trying to coax a squirrel into friendship minutes before her grandfather’s gubernatorial campaign launch party. The attempt goes poorly: Lucky ends up chasing the squirrel around her grandfather’s mansion and unceremoniously ruining the event.
Unable to afford any more mishaps during the race, Lucky’s grandfather sends Lucky and Cora to live with Jim in sleepy Miradero, which, in press notes, is simply described as a “small town on the edge of the wide-open frontier.” Spirit Untamed takes place in a universe unbound by time or geography, and that lack of specificity is frustrating for a film whose original premise was rooted in the violence endured by indigenous people and the surrounding wildlife at the hands of white Europeans. In fact, native people are essentially erased from this iteration of the story.
During the train ride, Lucky sees Spirit and his family outside her window in one of many sequences that connect Spirit Untamed to the Netflix series. (The shots of Spirit galloping alongside the train and his subsequent eye contact with Lucky are basically the same, except in technical quality, which is far superior in the film.) When Lucky arrives in Miradero, she sets out to explore and finds Spirit in one of the town’s corrals. Unbeknownst to her, he’s been captured by a sinister band of horse wranglers who hope to “break” him — a process that makes a horse more manageable — and auction him off to the highest bidder. Lucky builds a bond with the trapped stallion and through that process also befriends bubbly Abigail Stone (McKenna Grace) and hilarious, practical Pru Granger (Marsai Martin), who help her understand the foundations of earning a horse’s trust: calm, confidence and carrots.
When the three friends learn of the wranglers’ wretched plan, they set out to try and save Spirit and protect the rest of the wild horses. Spirit Untamed feels like an animated, more American version of the The Saddle Club, the Australian-Canadian TV series that detailed the lives of and friendship between three equestrians. The film’s strongest moments center the ties that bind Lucky, Abigail and Pru — who possess a refreshing sense of humor, quick wit and tenacity — and raise interesting questions about platonic love, integrity and respect that future feature projects can explore. Lucky’s tense relationship with her father also adds a welcome layer of depth. Still haunted by the memory of Milagro’s death, Jim forbids Lucky from riding horses — a rule his stubborn daughter doesn’t even pretend to entertain.
Spirit Untamed is beautiful to look at and occasionally genuinely funny. The stunning and detailed animations saturate Lucky’s world with an impressive array of colors, from the crimson apples she feeds Spirit to the pistachio and emerald-green leaves on the swaying trees. A cast of amusing secondary characters including Moore’s delightfully incredulous Aunt Cora help enliven the film’s tone. On the train to Miradero, when Lucky asks Cora why they can’t just go to the family’s lake house, her aunt looks up from her newspaper and quips: “It’s somewhat underwater along with most of my fondest childhood memories.” That deadpan line, which alludes to previous calamities caused by Lucky, is one of many suitably snarky moments.
But whereas the humans in the film are full of verve, the wild mustang that started it all feels flat in this narrative reframing. Although he still refuses to be tamed, Spirit is more one-dimensional here; he lacks the simultaneous mix of curiosity and complete disdain for humans that made his perspective charming in the first place. Meanwhile, the original’s broader commentary on nature, particularly the need to respect and preserve it, is nodded at, but doesn’t get the same amount of airtime. And though one could argue that these elements have been replaced by Lucky and her journey to connect with her Mexican heritage and mother’s legacy, that part of the film feels superficial and underwhelming. This leaves viewers with a much hollower story, one where thinking deeply isn’t a requirement.
Ultimately, Spirit Untamed will be a solid Friday-night movie choice for many kids and their parents. But it’s hard not to come away from the movie missing what, in the process of expanding this tale, was left behind.