Producer: Karen Foster Directors: Elaine Bogan and Ennio Torresan Screenplay: Aury Wallington, Kristin Hahn, Katherine Nolfi and John Fusco Cast: Isabela Merced, Julianne Moore, Jake Gyllenhaal, Marsai Martin, Mckenna Grace, Walton Goggins, Andre Braugher, Lucian Perez and Eiza González Distributor: Universal
When the Dreamworks animated film “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” was released in 2002, it received respectful reviews, but earned praise more for its visuals than its narrative. The story of a wild mustang that refused to be broken was only a modest success at the box office, but the studio leveraged it into a franchise anyway, using it as the basis for a couple of video games and, more importantly, a Netflix series, “Spirit Riding Free,” which has been running since 2017.
One might imagine that for a second big-screen feature the makers might have come up with something new, but “Spirit Untamed” turns out to be nothing more than an expanded origins episode drawn from the Netflix spin-off, co-written by Aury Wallington, who developed the series. Maybe the youngsters who love the program will enjoy the iteration, but given its predictability newcomers will probably find it a fairly bland ride; even the computer-generated visuals are unimpressive, especially when compared to the traditionally-effected 2002 images.
The predictably spunky heroine of the piece is Lucky (voiced by Isabela Merced), who lived as a baby with her railroad engineer father Jim (Jake Gyllenhaal) and star rodeo horse-rider mother Milagro (Eliza González) in the western town of Miradero until Milagro was killed performing a stunt, and grief-stricken Jim sent Lucky to live with his rail mogul father (Joe Hart) and sister Cora (Julianne Moore) back east.
Ten years later Lucky has grown into a rambunctious child, and when she manages to turn her grandfather’s announcement of a run for governor into a chaotic mess, he sends her and Cora to live with Jim for awhile. On the train outside Milagro, Lucky encounters Spirit and his band of fellow mustangs galloping along the tracks and instantly swoons over them. When she reaches Miradero, however, she finds that Spirit has been captured by an unsavory gang of ruffians headed by snarling Hendricks (Walton Goggins), who intends to “break” him for auction.
Lucky bonds with the horse, as well as with two local girls who help her connect with the freedom-loving steed, Pru (Marsai Martin), a skillful rider who’s the daughter of stable owner Al Granger (Andre Braugher), and Abigail (Mckenna Grace). Her growing attachment to Spirit complicates her relationship with Jim, who’s still traumatized by the accident that killed his wife and demands that his daughter have nothing to do with horses.
Of course, she ignores his orders, and, along with Pru and Abigail, attempts to thwart Hendricks’ plan to transport Spirit and the rest of his herd to auction. They take off after the train carrying the horses to market, and traverse a dangerous mountain route to catch up. Still the final confrontation occurs on a ship that will take the animals heaven knows where. The girls and the horses triumph, of course, helped a bit by Jim and Al, who use Jim’s speeded-up engine to get to the wharf just in time.
The voice work in “Spirit Untamed” is okay, though the characters—including Abigail’s comic-relief little brother Snips (Lucian Perez)—are frankly uninspired. The best things about the visuals are the backgrounds, which are rendered with painterly care (the production designer was Paul Duncan); by contrast, the CGI rendering of humans and animals is hardly better than TV quality. Overall, though, the technical work by Duncan, cinematographer Robert Edward Crawford and editor R. Orlando Davis is adequate, as is Amie Doherty’s score.
That’s the adjective that applies to the movie as a whole. As the first big-screen effort of director Elaine Brogan, whose experience was previously in television, and her co-director Ennio Torresan, it comes across as pretty standard animated family fare, not sinking to the level of much such CGI stuff but not transcending its roots in a Netflix spin-off series very far either.