2021, PG, 87 min. Directed by Elaine Bogan, Ennio Torresan Jr.. Voices by Isabela Merced, Jake Gyllenhaal, Marsai Martin, Mckenna Grace, Julianne Moore, Walton Goggins, Eiza González, Andre Braugher.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., June 4, 2021
What's the line between reinventing a story for different generations, and just slapping any old vaguely recognizable IP on top of a generic, off-the-peg story? That's the real story of Spirit Untamed, the latest attempt to bring the story of horses and their humans into audience's hearts.
2002's original Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron was a treacly if well-meaning animated revisionist tale of the Western Frontier, with the displacement of the Lakota and the ravaging of the land by the American military told from the viewpoint of a Kiger Mustang stallion (quite literally told, in a voice-over inner monologue by Matt Damon). Alongside the piratical antics of Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, it was DreamWorks Animation's way to push back against the belief that the studio was just a Disney knockoff, dependent on anthropomorphic animals (a very brief experiment that ended a year later with Madagascar and Shark Tale).
That may be the version that most adults know, unless they have kids who adored the sort-of-spin-off Spirit Riding Free, the 2017 tween-friendly series for Netflix that shifted attention away from Spirit and on to Lucky Prescott, a pugnacious and adventurous young girl who is sent to live with her father in the small frontier town of Miradero. Spirit Untamed is a soft reboot of Spirit Riding Free equally tween friendly, a little glossier and a little more conventional in the animation (think a more outdoorsy Doc McStuffins), but still centered on Lucky (now voiced by Merced). Yet again she has been dispatched by her glowering grandpa to live with her somewhat estranged father, rancher Jim (Gyllenhaal), who still lives with the guilt of Lucky's mother's death. Lucky befriends two local girls her age, gutsy Abigail (Grace) and boisterous Pru (Martin), and they set off on horseback adventures: in this case, rescuing Spirit (relegated to a supporting slot) from cruel wranglers and rustlers, headed by the malicious Hendricks (Goggins). If you can't guess, lessons are learned, villains get their comeuppance, and yet again prissy aunt Cora (Moore) gets a little of that East Coast formality whittled away by the friendly folks of Miradero.
Fans of the original film (which has undergone a benevolent reappraisal in the intervening years) will probably wonder why there is so little Spirit in Spirit Untamed. Kids who grew up on the show (or are still growing, since the Netflix show wrapped its eighth season in 2019, season 9 is still reportedly in development, and there was a new season of the Riding Academy spinoff last year) will wonder why they're retelling a story they already know. This almost feels like the Japanese anime industry's habit of dropping non-canonical and recap movies of a successful OVA as both fan service for diehards and an on-ramp for new audiences. Unfortunately, the formulaic Spirit Untamed never seems to know which trail it's taking.