All-too-familiar staples of the Horse Girl genre get mechanically trotted out in DreamWorks’ latest kids fare.
The biggest mistake Spirit Untamed makes is setting its credits to hand-drawn versions of computer-animated images straight from the movie. The already choppy animation looks even more underwhelming compared to warmer hand-drawn sketches. These credits are bound to send audiences out of the theater more aware than ever that the visuals on-screen were disappointing. Then again, maybe moviegoers will just forget the unfortunately generic thing entirely before they even reach the parking lot.
Spirit Untamed isn’t just a reboot of the 2002 DreamWorks Animation film Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. It’s also an extension of the popular animated Netflix show Spirit Riding Free. It’s normal for kid’s cartoons to come to the big screen, as Doug’s 1st Movie and Teen Titans Go! To The Movies can attest. Those movies, however, usually continue from the narrative established in the show. Spirit Untamed, on the other hand, opts to do an alternate version of how the program’s three leads met, as well as how protagonist Lucky met the titular horse Spirit, territory all covered in the show’s first few episodes.
Puzzling approach to adaptation aside, Spirit Untamed tells a story that will prove quite familiar even to those who couldn’t tell Spirit Riding Free from The Saddle Club. Lucky (Isabela Merced) is a young girl who doesn’t care for following the rules, and is being forced to move in with her father, James (Jake Gyllenhaal). The two haven’t spoken in a decade since Lucky’s mom passed away in a rodeo accident. Now reunited in a dusty small town, both father and daughter are finding the path to reconnection complicated.
Something that does catch Lucky’s eye is a wild horse named Spirit. Seemingly impossible to tame, Spirit and Lucky eventually become friends. Similarly, Lucky begins bonding with two other young girls in the town, Pru (Marsai Martin) and Abigail (Mckenna Grace). Just as things seem to be going swimmingly in Lucky’s new life, a gang of poachers, led by Hendricks (Walton Goggins), steal all the horses in Spirit’s herd. Lucky, Spirit, and her two new human friends will need to race against the clock and stop Hendricks and his men from completing their wicked mission.
The most novel parts of Spirit Untamed are some of its most low-key. Even eight years after Frozen proved that mainstream animated movies could star multiple women without flopping tragically, we still don’t have a ton of theatrical cartoons that feature numerous female characters. This means even simple scenes of Lucky, Pru, and Abigail just goofing around a campfire has some novelty to it. We’re all used to seeing ultra-realistic backgrounds in computer-animation movies. But girls just being friends? Now that’s a rare sight!
The friendship between these three characters has its share of clunky jokes, many of them from the character Abigail. Still, there’s something unique about the rapport between this trio and the sight of them going on an adventure solo. It’s all simple, sure, but it’s also easy to see these scenes appealing directly to the target audience of 4-6-year-old girls. Who in that demographic wouldn’t want to live vicariously through Lucky managing to cross the Ridge of Regret on the back of a horse like Spirit? Spirit Untamed isn’t rewriting the book, but in these set pieces it knows how to satisfy the moviegoers it’s made for.
Unfortunately, director Elaine Bogan and company can’t just focus on Lucky and her pals trying to save horses. There’s also a prominent subplot involving Lucky’s fractured relationship with her father, because, as Flicka, Dreamer, and so many other films prove, it’s not a Horse Girl movie without a tormented father/daughter dynamic. Spirit Untamed makes several odd storytelling choices with this part of the plot, including concealing the exact details of how Lucky’s mom died from the viewer until late into the movie.
Later on, it becomes clear that she died while performing on a horse doing a trick she’d “done a thousand times before.” That makes it understandable why James would be so determined to keep his daughter away from horses. But all we know initially is that Mom is out of the picture, and a subtle visual cue in the prologue hints that she’s dead. This means that James’s abrupt condemnation of Lucky going anywhere near a horse just comes out of nowhere. Similarly, a seemingly crucial detail about why James hasn’t seen his daughter in so long is delivered in a throwaway manner–many viewers may not even catch it entirely!
There’s a reason films like Finding Nemo and Up put the tragic backstory for pivotal characters upfront. Once you know the torment that’s informing someone’s actions, you can follow them through anything, even when they’re acting outright abrasive. Spirit Untamed, meanwhile, weighs its troubled father/daughter relationship down with vague details for far too much of its runtime. As a result, it’s hard to get invested in wanting these two characters to ever mend their differences. Anytime it cuts back to Lucky and James, viewers will, understandably, want to go back to the horsies.
The various storylines of Spirit Untamed are told through underwhelming computer animation courtesy of Jellyfish Pictures. Outsourcing all the animation to another company makes this the newest instance of a lower-budget production hailing from DreamWorks Animation, following previous efforts like Abominable. Now, some CG features like The Book of Life or Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie don’t let a smaller price tag thwart their creativity. These films deliver unique visual aesthetics that can be accomplished, and even look great within restrictive financial circumstances. Spirit Untamed is not one of those features.
Though an upgrade from the visuals of the Spirit Riding Free show, Spirit Untamed still looks shoddy, particularly in its backgrounds. These largely look like desktop screensavers rather than locales actual creatures live in. The generically designed characters themselves are frequently stiff-looking in their movements. I’m not sure what executive order got passed that all American computer-animated women must have gigantic saucer-like eyes, but I need it revoked. More variety in how CG women look, I beg of you. My crops are dying.
The animation on Spirit Untamed doesn’t seem fitting for a theatrical release. Perhaps it would look better if it had gone straight-to-video, or straight-to-Peacock, in modern parlance. Compared to DTV Barbie and Swan Princess sequels, the visuals in Spirit Untamed could have looked like the animation in Soul by comparison. As it stands, the imagery in Spirit Untamed is underwhelming even before the credits come along to show how much better things could have looked if they had been told through hand-drawn animation.
Still, even if Andreas Deja and Bruce W. Smith had been drawing these characters, it’s doubtful they could have helped make the more generic storytelling and comedic instincts of Spirit Untamed bearable. Credit where credit is due, the better sequences here will probably be the best thing the target demo sees until that Paw Patrol movie rolls into theaters. But even younger moviegoers deserve a better film to open up the door and say “Hello world” to.
Spirit Untamed opens in theaters June 4th.