Back in 2002, I saw Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron and then more-or-less instantly forgot everything about it except for Bryan Adams singing (which I’d like to forget). Therefore, I was unaware that the movie had spawned a Netflix animated series four years ago. Now the series has been successful enough to greenlight another theatrical film. Big mistake: Despite a few A-list names in the voice cast, Spirit Untamed has no business being in theaters.
Our human protagonist is Fortuna Esperanza Navarro “Lucky” Prescott (voiced by Isabela Merced), a 12-year-old girl who is exiled from her grandfather’s house after she inadvertently sabotages his campaign for governor and sent to live with her railroad engineer father (voiced by Jake Gyllenhaal), who sent the girl away after the death of his wife (voiced by Eiza González) in a rodeo accident. On the train ride over, Lucky is entranced by the sight of our title horse and his pack running alongside. Unfortunately, so are a gang of outlaws who decide to fill their pockets by wrangling the horses onto a boat destined for parts unknown.
Remember when DreamWorks Animation had designs on rivalling Disney and Pixar for the kids audience? That seems a long time ago. Their previous efforts like Shrek and Kung Fu Panda had enough clever writing and characters to stick. Presented with a second bite of the apple, the filmmakers here can’t conjure up anything interesting. Lucky is a cookie-cutter tomboy, as are the friends she quickly makes (voiced by Marsai Martin and Mckenna Grace) in this new place. None of the story beats strike anything distinctive, and the action set pieces carry no suspense because there’s nothing that Spirit can’t do. With a fat opportunity to do so, the script fails to shed any light on the Latin aspects of America’s cowboy culture. (They probably should have included a Hispanic person among the movie’s creative leaders.) No one in this voice cast has anything to play, not even Julianne Moore as Lucky’s aunt who wants her to be a demure girl in a dress. The Western locations give you nothing to look at, either, and the original songs are dull. The one notable thing about this movie is that we finally get to hear Gyllenhaal sing after his sterling efforts on Broadway. The filmmakers have him sing badly, which just cinches the idea that they don’t know what they’re doing.
Heaven knows I have nothing against reboots if the people behind them have carefully rethought the source material, keeping what worked and adjusting what didn’t. Spirit Untamed feels like something that was thrown together when the original property suddenly became hot again. This needed to be on a streaming service, where the stakes for viewership are lower. If your kids are antsy to see something in a theater now that they can do so under pre-pandemic circumstances, there’s plenty else to see that will be more rewarding.
Voices by Isabela Merced and Jake Gyllenhaal. Directed by Elaine Bogan. Written by Aury Wallington and Kristin Hahn. Rated PG.