Spirit, the animated equine co-star of the new movie Spirit Untamed, is descended in some unspecified way from his namesake, the title character of the 2002 DreamWorks cartoon Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron. Both films are set sometime in the late 19th century; one Spirit is very likely the direct offspring of the other. The movies, though, are nearly two decades apart, and the gap feels larger. When the original Spirit was released to mild acclaim and milder box office back in 2002, it was a relic of one DreamWorks house style (ambitious, comedy-light 2D animation that longed to develop the more sophisticated side of Disney’s ’90s renaissance) that was quickly being usurped by another (jokey, antic, chattery, computer-animated). An entire Shrek empire rose and fell (even absorbing the horse movie’s director) before Spirit was revived for a computer-animated streaming series in 2017, resembling neither its solemn source material nor its snarky cousins.
That TV series forms the basis for Spirit Untamed, but in an odd, roundabout way. Rather than continue the adventures of Lucky Prescott, a 12-year-old girl adjusting to life in a small but multiple-horse frontier town, Spirit Untamed essentially retells, modifies, and expands the events of the show’s pilot. In the movie version, Lucky (Isabela Merced) arrives in Miradero, accompanied by her proper Aunt Cora (Julianne Moore), to stay with her widower father Jim (Jake Gyllenhaal) for the summer, keeping her out of the way of her grandfather’s gubernatorial campaign. Lucky’s mother was a horseback performer who died after a bad fall—a change from the series, where her cause of death is vaguely hinted to be illness, and where railroad engineer Jim has not recused himself from her life for the better part of a decade. Spirit Untamed will be a culturally educational experience for a lot of young fans, imparting lessons less about the perils of the American West than the power of retconning. (Or, it might just confuse them, along with any parents who watch the show.)
The movie also introduces the wonders of recasting: The principals of the TV series have been shunted aside in favor of the aforementioned starrier names. The central friendships, though, are the same, and quickly reestablished. Lucky is a city girl who nonetheless takes an interest in horseback riding, meets more experienced horse-girls Pru (Marsai Martin) and Abigail (Mckenna Grace), and attempts to (slightly) tame Spirit, who, as in the original film, is chafing at his recent captivity. Eventually, the girls and their horses team up to save Spirit’s family of mustangs from outlaws led by Hendricks (Walton Goggins, continuing his quest to appear in as many oaters as possible).
As a DreamWorks production, Spirit Untamed carries inarguable novelty: It’s a sweet, simple Western, relaxed about its identity as a girl-centric adventure story, in contrast to bigger DreamWorks cartoons sweaty about their desire to draw eyeballs from Pixar and Minions. For its big-screen upgrade, the animation loses some of its distinctive TV stylization, where rudimentary 3D designs have pleasingly paint-like textures, while gaining an expressiveness and detail that its cheaper counterpart lacks. A few standout sequences, like a brief action-heavy fantasy scene and a nighttime climax, give the animators a chance to do the lightest of showing off.
This is a far cry from the quasi-spiritual ambitions of the older film, which hired Matt Damon to recite Spirit’s inner monologue and focused its human story on a member of the Lakota Native tribe. For all of its pleasantly old-fashioned storytelling, Untamed favors an approach to representation that smacks of contemporary market-testing, with a diverse trio of girls who all talk a lot like 21st-century tweens, albeit probably more politely than some. (These intentional anachronisms in the dialogue are there in the TV series as well.) No Native characters turn up here, and the genuine conflict and danger of the West is reduced to comically brief peril that demonstrates just how difficult it is for even the gentlest movie to garner a G rating. (This one is PG, for “some adventure action.” So basically, for running.)
The first Spirit didn’t reach classic status, but it carried a firm conviction that adults might want to watch it and kids might learn something from it. This one doesn’t even seem certain that fans of the show will watch it—there are around 100 episodes of the series available on Netflix and the movie simply retells one of them. Though it’s nominally liberated from its TV backstory, Spirit Untamed could still have benefited from a little more freedom.