Alex is a School of Visual Arts graduate with a passion for media, writing and animation. He writes reviews for film, television, and games.
Before DreamWorks brought us many memorable characters like Shrek, Hiccup & Toothless, Po, Alex, and Poppy, there was once a time when Moses, Tulio & Miguel, Spirit, and Sinbad existed. To put this in layman's terms, DreamWorks was a very different company compared to the studio today. It once developed hand-drawn animated films in the late 1990s and early 2000s to compete with Disney. However, once computer-animated films became popular, thanks to Pixar and its own classic Shrek, DreamWorks decided to quit hand-drawn animation after Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas bombed...till it released the 2018 short film Bird Karma.
Over the years, its hand-drawn works have gathered huge followings where both Prince of Egypt and Road to El Dorado are considered underrated gems. While it is appreciative that its forgotten projects are getting the recognition they deserve, it is becoming randomly experimental when the company decided to make a spin-off based on its properties.
For example, the 2002 film Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron centered on a wild mustang being captured by the U.S. Calvary where it was later freed and befriended by a Native American named Little Rock. Outside of decent reviews and performing alright at the box office, it was a unique animated film where it blended both hand-drawn and computer animation, and the story of the American Indian Wars was told through the horse's point of view without going too far and being too graphic by family movie standards. It was like a movie that elementary or middle school students would watch when learning about the colonial period. Even so, this movie particularly became a media franchise.
A Netflix spin-off television series, Spirit Riding Free, was created where it not only shifted from 2D to CGI but became a hit among new audiences and ran for eight seasons. Logically, DreamWorks believes that making a movie based on that particular series would give it more attention...and it decided to make it theatrical as well. Sounds risky, I know. Then again, the movie's production was outsourced with a low budget, similarly to Captain Underpants: The First Epic Adventure, so there may be some hope...or not.
When a young girl (voiced by Isabella Merced) moves to a rural town and befriends a wild mustang, she and her new friends must save his herd from horse wranglers.
Review: Safe Story for Kids, Underwhelming for Adults
Making a spin-off based on something obscure as Spirit is quite a tall order. Since this is more directly related to the show than the original film, it does make sense to conjure up a tale without rehashing the plot. Elements from the show are present throughout the movie such as the characters and setting. The huge difference is that the show's concept has adapted into a retelling that is neither a prequel nor a continuation of the show. So, it is an assumption that this would be suitable for newcomers.
On a lighter note, there are a few callbacks from the original film that are thrown in as a form of familiarity for long-time Spirit viewers. In fact, the noblest thing this movie did was the dedication to the late animator Kelly Asbury, well known for directing Shrek 2 and the original Spirit. Another difference for non-fans to point out is the switched perspectives. Instead of experiencing the story through the horse's point of view, it is told through the human side instead. No other way to describe this: This Spirit movie carries some "spirit" of the source material.
With that said, if you took anything Spirit out of context, the story alone is executed in the safest way for kids but nothing much special for anyone else. One of the story's issues is the pacing. Okay, the first act with Lucky moving to town, meeting her friends and taming Spirit is decently established enough. Actually, the best thing that the story handles is the heart whenever Lucky discovers her mother's horse-riding performer past and her natural growing bond with Spirit and his herd. Yet, once the adventure begins, the scenes where they head through Heck Mountain and the Ridge of Regret feel rushed. It is possibly due to its running time. If the movie had a little more time, the adventure would be more engaging.
Read More From Reelrundown
The story also has plot points and characters that either are cliched or predictable. It even tries lightening the mood with some comedy. While it has its chuckle-worthy moments, primarily from the character Abigail, most of the humor is one-liners and a bit of mediocre slapstick. Even though the heart of Spirit remains intact, the story is generally weak on its own.
Low-Budget Animation With Cinematic Update
Like any movie based on a television show, anyone would expect some boost in the animation quality. It had an estimated budget of $30 million and, when making comparisons, the animation is absolutely solid and looks closer to an actual DreamWorks movie than the show itself. To clarify this statement for a moment, the cel-shaded CGI in Riding Free is NOT bad at all. It is a clever style choice, reminiscent of the hand-drawn animation of the original. The only issue is that fans would be confused by the movie's art medium change.
Spirit surprisingly transitions pleasantly into computer animation and the animators crafted the most of what they could do with outsourced production done at Jellyfish Pictures. Returning elements from the 2002 film are the horses themselves. The titular character and the horses look and are animated anatomically accurate with readable facial expressions. For Riding Free, the characters were given creative liberties and retooling in their designs. They retain their realistic features yet their eyes are more expressive.
In addition, thanks to the cinematic upgrade, the textures on their hair and clothing are more believable and the character animation is more polished. The horse-riding scenes and action sequences are also admittedly compelling. There was effort and research thrown in on incorporating how a horse and its rider would act in a sticky situation.
Miradero is an average rural town with nothing special to look at. But, the valley and desert environments outside the town help give the movie its scope. Even the locations that the girls venture through are conceptually intriguing with possibilities catering to the adventure genre. The problem is that the pacing hinders them from their full potential. The only component carried from the show is the painted backgrounds from afar. They help complement the movie's minimal budget and continuously honor the hand-drawn film. In fact, during the credits, a montage of scenes would freeze and go into a 2D sketch-like illustration. Whatever side of the fence you are on, we could acknowledge that the animators worked hard and made the movie look cinematically possible.
Ordinary and Flat Characters for Non-Fans
As mentioned before, one of the elements brought over from the Netflix show is its characters. While kids and fans of the show are satisfied that they maintain their personalities, newcomers would view them as either average or one-dimensional. Like his hand-drawn counterpart, Spirit is the stubborn yet brave and kind wild mustang that desires to go home to his herd. But, since this is about the humans instead of him, there are no inner monologues. Our human protagonist, Fortuna Esperanza Prescott a.k.a. "Lucky," is the typical independent and rebellious girl who wants to carry her late mother's legacy.
Her travelling companions are the reasonable horse trainer Pru and the ditzy yet confident Abigail. The weakest character among the cast is the villain Hendricks. He is the generic horse-wrangling leader that plans to capture and sell the horses off for profit. Other characters include Lucky's estranged father Jim, the protective Aunt Cora, the ranch owner and Pru's father Al, and Abigail's mischievous younger brother Snips.
Although the original actors from the show didn't reprise their roles, the casting for this movie makes up for it by giving the characters some personality, which could be the stand-out aspect about them. Isabella Merced, Marsai Martin and McKenna Grace naturally work off each other nicely and Jake Gyllenhaal knows when to act silly and serious at the same time. Performances aside, a few characters are tolerable enough but the rest are easily forgettable.
Overall, Spirit Untamed is a DreamWorks spin-off entertainingly harmless for families, but blandly forgettable for others. With thorough analysis, this movie is aimed specifically at fans of Spirit: Riding Free rather than the average viewer. As a spin-off, it shows some loyalty to the source material with heart, effective animation and nice voice acting. On its own, the movie has a bare-bones story, hasty length and some uninteresting characters.
It is a difficult movie to recommend, especially for a DreamWorks movie that people today don't know about. If you enjoy the Netflix series or generally horses, that is for you. For anyone who fondly remembers the 2002 film, it is most likely a rental. Keep your expectations low. As for everyone else, it is a skip—watch the original instead. At least, it would get more attention than other DreamWorks properties nowadays. It may have brought back Spirit for television, but it was a risky move theatrically. Then again, what did YOU expect?