A kid named Lucky loses her mother, moves to the frontier with her father and befriends a wild mustang in “Spirit Untamed.” While experienced professionals fail to break the strong-willed stallion, Lucky (who has never ridden a horse) feeds it a few apples, and before long, the youngster has tamed the obstinate animal — which is inconsistent with this cheap and all-around lazy animated movie’s title, but chalk that up to marketing.
While Disney churns out live-action remakes of its most popular cartoons, DreamWorks Animation has another strategy: For every modestly successful theatrical release (and even a few less so, like racing snail saga “Turbo”), it spins off an episodic TV series to Netflix or Nickelodeon to keep the characters alive and the merch in demand.
With “Spirit Untamed,” the studio comes full circle, producing an animated movie based on the animated series (“Spirit Riding Free”) based on the 2002 animated feature “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.” It’s not clear whether this latest — and least appealing — incarnation is a reboot, a remake or just a running-on-fumes grab at some easy cash, but it exists, and kids know the property, so it will get seen. Whether this benign (read: bland) movie does anything to meaningfully extend/expand the franchise is another question.
It’s been 19 years since the original “Spirit,” which was DreamWorks’ next-to-last hand-drawn feature. The gorgeous movie was an unconventional toon in many ways: a talking-animal movie in which the titular horse (voiced by Matt Damon) spoke only to us, the audience, while communicating with others through snorts and movement. “Spirit” projected an aesthetic and conceptual purity that DreamWorks has since abandoned, one-upping “The Lion King’s” spectacular “Circle of Life” prologue with digital tools that allowed the virtual camera to swoop and fly through the untamed West.
Within a few years, DreamWorks’ computer animation technology would be so sophisticated — and the “Shrek” series such a hit — as to render the traditional (manual) approach obsolete. But “Spirit,” while not a masterpiece per se, will always stand as the apotheosis of what the studio could achieve the old-fashioned way … which makes this decades-later sequel something of a rude awakening.
It’s possible that we have already witnessed the peak of DreamWorks’ CG potential, back before the sale to Universal, when Jeffrey Katzenberg was still in charge. This latest feature appears to have been outsourced, with DreamWorks overseeing the development and animation handled by Jellyfish Pictures at a fraction of the cost. The result looks disappointing, to say the least, barely better than the low-budget likes of “Hoodwinked” some 15 years ago.
“Spirit Untamed” effectively rehashes the pilot episode of the “Spirit Riding Free” series, which covered its bargain-price tracks with textures that appeared almost painterly by comparison, like something out of a picture book. This new feature substitutes unappealingly designed, obviously digital characters, who’ve been badly rigged and stuck in under-detailed environments. Early on, while chasing a squirrel through a banquet hall, Lucky falls and disrupts the entire event, but the payoff shot cuts to a table with a few items knocked over, presumably because more props would’ve been too costly or cumbersome to animate.
Quality animation can be awfully expensive, and it would be easy to forgive such cut-rate tricks from an indie production. But we’ve come to expect a certain quality from the studio that produced “Kung Fu Panda” and “How to Train Your Dragon,” and this step backward is a troubling development, undeserving of the DreamWorks name. Also questionable is the decision to adapt the TV series in the first place, especially if there’s no commitment to boosting what came before — apart from one visually striking fantasy sequence, in which Lucky rides across wet ground reflecting indigo blue skies.
Spirit still looks like Spirit, but neither the horse nor the girl (who’s voiced by live-action Dora actor Isabela Merced) has much of a personality, while the plot is less sophisticated than what audiences might expect from an early-20th-century single-reel silent movie: Lucky takes a train with Aunt Cora (Julianne Moore) to join her father (Jake Gyllenhaal) out West, seeing Spirit running free en route. Once Lucky reaches her new home, Dad forbids her from having anything to do with horses, but she disobeys and winds up stealing Spirit in order to liberate a number of wild horses from a rustler (Walton Goggins).
The heroes are girls — Lucky and her friends Abigail (Mckenna Grace) and Pru (Marsai Martin) — and that’s a step in the right direction, in terms of representation. (Only one of them is white.) But the movie is so devoid of personality that any advances in identity politics are practically beside the point. The movie gives Merced a chance to perform a couple decent songs, while the soundtrack also includes Becky G single “You Belong,” but not the Taylor Swift “Wildest Dreams” cover featured in the trailer. But then, very little of “Spirit Untamed” lives up to what the studio is selling.