Any parent or caregiver can tell you that children can watch the same TV show or movie again and again. And again…and again. My children spent the rainy Memorial Day weekend re-watching all three seasons of The Lion Guard as if it were The Sopranos. “Haven’t you already seen The Lion Guard so many times?” I asked. My daughter looked at me incredulously (and as if I was a bit daft) and announced “It’s been over a year since we watched.”
So children, in particular, are a viewing audience who do not care about things being repetitive. They aren’t anxious for a movie to break new ground or to give them something they haven’t seen before. This works out well for Spirit Untamed, which is being billed as “the next chapter in the beloved story from DreamWorks Animation.” But, in reality, it’s the same chapter kids have already read.
But let’s back up. The franchise first began in 2002 with Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron and Matt Damon as the voice of the titular horse. The Netflix series Spirit Riding Free, which featured an offspring of the original Spirit as the title character, premiered in 2017 and has had eight seasons and a few spin-offs.
Spirit Untamed tells the story of Lucky Prescott (Isabela Merced) who has been living with her Aunt Cora (Julianne Moore). After one too many times of not listening to the rules, Cora decides to take Lucky to rural frontier town Miradero (reminiscent of Little House on the Prairie), so she can spend the summer with her father Jim (Jake Gyllenhaal). In Miradero, Lucky meets Abigail Stone (Mckenna Grace) and Pru Granger (Marsai Martin) and befriends a mustang named Spirit (no longer a talking character). Andre Braugher lends his voice to Al, Pru’s father and Jim’s best friend. Walton Goggins is the nefarious horse wrangler who wants to capture Spirit.
The plot will sound very familiar to the movie’s target audience since, in many ways, it mirrors the pilot episode of Spirit Riding Free. There are a few plot modifications, more famous voices behind the characters and new animation (which has all the characters looking slightly different), but the gist of the story is the same. Kids probably won’t care, but it’s a curious choice. Why not have the movie be a bridge between seasons of the TV show—or tell a whole new story?
There is, of course, a push to bring people back to movie theaters. But it’s an odd decision to have a movie squarely aimed at those under 12 (also known as the population that cannot yet be vaccinated) be released in theaters only. It would seem that this should be an area where parents should have a choice. And that those who are not yet ready to take their unvaccinated children to a movie theater would still be able to have their children see the movie when it opens. The release of Cruella, which made the movie available in theaters and on Disney+, seems like a good model to follow. The streaming platform Peacock is right there: Dreamworks’ upcoming Boss Baby: Family Business will do just that, and be released in theaters and on Peacock simultaneously. But I digress.
The major change the movie makes is that Lucky has been separated from her father since the death of her mother Milagro (Eiza González)—oh, to have a children’s movie where both parents are alive and well! Jim is reluctant to have his daughter ride a horse, since that’s how Milagro died. “It’s not Spirit’s fault that mom fell off a horse,” Lucky tells him. When Lucky arrives in Miradero, her father is unsure of how to forge a relationship with his estranged daughter. All he remembers is that she used to love strawberries, which leads to a bedroom with a strong strawberry motif as décor. “Cora, I don’t know what I’m doing,” Jim laments to his sister.
Spirit Untamed spends a few moments on Lucky wanting to connect to her mother’s Mexican heritage. But it comes off as the movie checking a diversity box rather than really trying to explore any nuanced conversation around the subject matter.
There is danger and adventure. Coming of age, as the three friends test the limits of their independence. The CG animation is fine. Not as vibrant as some of the animated classics of our youth, but not the rushed, cheap animation of some of the direct-to-video Disney sequels. What’s missing here is heart. While the message of Spirit Untamed is a good one (some things are worth fighting for; you have to let your children make their own mistakes), it’s hard not to see the movie as an easy money grab.
Director: Elaine Bogan
Writer: Aury Wallington, Kristin Hahn, Katherine Nolfi
Starring: Isabela Merced, Julianne Moore, Jake Gyllenhaal, Marsai Martin, Mckenna Grace, Walton Goggins, Andre Braugher, Eiza González
Release Date: June 4, 2021
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer and a member of the Television Critics Association. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).