Early in the history of DreamWorks Animation, there lay before the upstart studio two paths. On one side, there was the path of pursuing computer-animated stories that often boasted enormously famous celebrities, soundtracks with wall-to-wall pop songs, and pop-culture references to keep adults satisfied. On the other side, there was the path of making stories more in the vein of Disney Animation, hand-drawn tales of adventure and fantasy that hadn’t yet been mined by the standard-bearer of the medium. Just over 20 years ago, when Shrek opened to rave reviews and immense box office, DreamWorks chose the former path, but not before releasing a couple more films that owed more to Disney, including the 2002 hand-drawn animated film Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.
The Western adventure was surprisingly austere and intelligent, eschewing wink-y jokes and tons of A-Listers (though Matt Damon served as the off-screen voice for the eponymous horse) in favor of an elegiac depiction of the Old West through the eyes of a beautiful horse. Though it was but a mild success at the box office at the time, Spirit has survived to become what DreamWorks loves most – a profitable franchise. A few years ago, Stallion of the Cimarron inspired a Netflix animated series, Spirit: Riding Free. And now, nearly 20 years after the film’s initial release, it’s led to a feature-length rehash of Riding Free, entitled Spirit Untamed. The new film is amiable at best and forgettable at worst, a low-key affair that will likely appeal to kids under the age of 10 without pushing the boundaries of what they can handle creatively.
Those same kids may be the audience that binge-watched Spirit: Riding Free, which could make Untamed an odd experience. Both the film and TV show appear to be telling roughly the same story, just at different lengths. Lucky (voiced by Isabela Merced) has lived with her aunt Cora (Julianne Moore) for years after her mother (Eiza Gonzalez) died tragically and her father (Jake Gyllenhaal) struggled to cope with the loss while also being a single father. After Lucky infuriates her conservative grandfather with her antics during a swanky event, she and Cora head West to reunite with her dad. In doing so, she falls in with a couple of new friends and meets that very same stallion of the Cimarron, Spirit himself.
Spirit Untamed is inoffensive, which both makes it far more tolerable than most other DreamWorks Animation titles and also not terribly good in and of itself. Perhaps what’s most notable is the manner of production; like the extremely funny DWA title Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, Spirit Untamed was animated by an outside studio at a lower budget. For Captain Underpants, that choice didn’t just make sense from a financial standpoint; creatively, it was perfectly logical that a story told and drawn by elementary-school boys looked ramshackle and handmade. But Spirit Untamed is intended to be a story of the Wild West, of expansive frontier vistas gazing over the prairies. The animation should look halfway as grand and epic as the story it’s trying to tell, and that’s just not the case. Spirit Untamed looks like it was made on a low budget, which runs decidedly counter to the world it’s trying to create.
Spirit Untamed also owes a creative debt, if only somewhat, to another DreamWorks Animation franchise, How to Train Your Dragon. The child/father dynamic is thorny for a while in Spirit Untamed, much as it is for Hiccup and his dad, as Lucky’s dad all but demonizes horses for the fact that her mother was killed while doing a complicated horse-jumping stunt. And the friendships that Lucky makes with two other local girls, often while riding animals and doing complicated, death-defying tricks, brings to mind the way Hiccup and his fellow Viking teens ride and harness dragons throughout that series. There are worse films to be inspired by in the DreamWorks Animation filmography, but the connection is no less unavoidable.
Spirit Untamed marks the third DreamWorks Animation release of the pandemic. Those three films – alongside this, there’s Trolls World Tour and The Croods: A New Age – all have at least one thing in common, which is that they’re the inexplicable continuation of franchises that seemed dead on the vine. Spirit Untamed is the least challenging of the three, and the easiest and least obnoxious to watch. But Spirit Untamed also serves as a reminder of how much more ambitious DreamWorks Animation used to be, back in the waning glory days of hand-drawn animation.
There was an all-too-brief time when anything was artistically possible at DreamWorks Animation. Maybe if films like Stallion of the Cimarron had been initially successful, out-of-the-box hits, we’d have been choked with hand-drawn franchises instead. But what we have are, decades after computer-animated franchises stopped bearing fruit, movies like Spirit Untamed, which are…y’know, fine. But it’s forgettable, and too forgettable to inspire a trip to the theater this summer.
/Film Rating: 5 out of 10
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