Animated properties in the 21st century often blur the lines between movies and TV. There are numerable examples of an animated movie being spun off into a TV show, sometimes making the journey back into theaters. The trail the Spirit franchise has followed is unusual, as the 2002 Oscar-nominated Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron stood on its own for 15 years until it was revived as a Netflix show, Spirit Riding Free, in 2017, a show that has now yielded its own movie, Spirit Untamed.
What purpose the movie serves, however, is unclear. It centers on Fortuna “Lucky” Prescott (Isabela Merced), a young girl in the 1800s who has lived most of her life in the city after her mother died when Lucky was a baby and her father, Jim (Jake Gyllenhaal), was unable to look after her properly. A trip back west with her Aunt Cora (Julianne Moore) to visit him upends her life, as she bonds with a wild mustang she names Spirit.
The film quickly splits into the good — Lucky and her two friends, Pru Granger (Marsai Martin) and Abigail Stone (McKenna Grace) – and the bad – a horse wrangler (Walton Goggins) intent on stealing Spirit and other horses. The story only has one direction it can go, and it follows that blueprint exactly.
What’s curious, though, is that it’s also the exact story put forth in the animated show, which has had 12 mini-seasons and two specials since its debut. The filmmakers, led by co-directors Elaine Bogan and Ennio Toresan, might be trying to re-introduce the main plot for anyone who hasn’t watched the show, but in so doing they forego the opportunity to take the characters in any new or interesting directions.
And if you haven’t watched the TV episodes, you might be surprised that this version has only one thing in common with the original 2002 film – the horse, Spirit. And even that’s changed greatly, as the first film was focused on the horse and had him speak with the voice of Matt Damon. Now, he doesn’t talk at all, with the story more interested in the spunkiness and adventurousness of Lucky and her friends.
It’s obvious that young children are the one and only audience for the film, but that aim raises multiple other questions. Why continue to propagate the idea that a parent dying is the only way for a child to face adversity in an animated film? Why cast well-known actors like Gyllenhaal, Moore, Goggins, and Andre Braugher over the original cast from the TV show? It’s not like kids are going to know the difference, and the actors don’t provide any extra attraction for parents bringing their kids to the movie.
Anyone who’s gotten used to animation continuing to make leaps and bounds in movies will find themselves wanting here, as it’s relatively unsophisticated. It looks and feels as if they just used the same method employed on the TV show, adding to the idea that there was no real reason to turn it into a feature film.
Spirit Untamed has a good message about being fearless and believing in yourself, but it comes in a package that is uninspiring. The intended kid audience may have a good time, but anyone else is better off waiting for the next Pixar movie to come out.
Spirit Untamed opens in theaters on June 4.