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'Spirit Untamed': Rare and satisfying reboot

by Courtney Lanning | June 4, 2021 at 1:34 a.m.
Boomerang and his silly friend, Abigail Stone (voice of Mckenna Grace), ride the wild country in DreamWorks’ computer-animated “Spirit Untamed,” which is kind of a sequel to 2002’s “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.”

Reboots are the eternal complaint about Hollywood. Had I a magic wand, I'd set a yearlong moratorium on reboots (and sequels). Return to your slush piles and select some original screenplays, damn it.

Yet, a few reboots turn out equal or better than the original. The 2012 "Dredd" with Karl Urban was much better than its '90s counterpart. And this year's reboot of "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron," is also an exception to the rule.

Released in 2002, the original "Spirit" seemed like one of the last big hand-drawn 2D animation projects released in theaters before the now standard 3D computer generated art style took off. Box office bombs like "Treasure Planet" and "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" would only hasten the demise of 2D animation I sorely miss.

It'd be an understatement to say I wasn't exactly looking forward to reviewing "Spirit Untamed." I avoided the Netflix series "Spirit Riding Free," because I disliked the art style so much. But I figured I could sacrifice a couple hours to see if "Spirit Untamed" would be as disappointing as I expected it to be, especially when compared to the Oscar-nominated original.

I think I counted five minutes into "Spirit Untamed" before I was forced to eat my words. It was just so funny. The slapstick humor caught me off guard, especially since the original was a dramatic western tale about indomitable souls.

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There are so many bonkers moments in the first few minutes, and that accomplished two things. First, "Spirit Untamed" got me to laugh my head off. Second, it really endeared me to its main character, Fortuna "Lucky" Prescott. She's voiced by Isabela Merced ("Dora and the Lost City of Gold").

Fortuna loses her mother to a horse riding accident in the first minute and is sent to live with her grandfather. But after causing enough trouble for his gubernatorial campaign (see: bonkers opening), Fortuna is sent to live with her father in the frontier town of Miradero. While on the train to Miradero, Fortuna comes across Spirit, running with his herd alongside the train.

The rest of "Spirit Untamed" follows her making friends in Miradero, establishing a connection with Spirit, repairing the torn relationship with her father and going after bandits who want to sell Spirit's herd.

I appreciated a straightforward story that knew how to get everything done in about 90 minutes. The original "Spirit" was just one minute shorter. Talk about succinct.

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"Spirit Untamed" surprised me with just how many big names were attached to the voice cast. You've got Jake Gyllenhaal, Julianne Moore, Andre Braugher and Walton Goggins signed up for what could have very easily been a low-effort cash grab of a reboot.

DreamWorks really delivered an animated film of cinematic quality. Because of the art I'd seen in the Netflix series, I expected "Spirit Untamed" to be lackluster. But there's actually some things to love about the animation of this reboot.

For starters, whoever was in charge of animating the eyes of each character knocked it out of the park. Right away I put down in my notes the eyes are so reflective and beautiful. And the details of Spirit's mane and coat? Top notch.

I also appreciated diversity in the main characters. It was great to see a Latina in the lead role of an animated film. It's a small detail, but I smiled at the fact Hispanic folks in town called her Fortuna while her family stuck with Lucky. At her side is a Black girl named Pru (Marsai Martin) and Abigail (Mckenna Grace), who is perhaps the silliest of the trio.

I would complain about the fact these girls just become friends without much buildup or introduction, but the three of them are just so lovable and charming it left me disarmed.

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The movie does, however, take time to build Fortuna's relationship with Spirit. When bandits take Spirit into town to break him so he can be sold, Fortuna regularly visits him and takes him apples, although I'm fairly sure real horses shouldn't eat as many apples as Spirit consumed.

It pays off, watching the relationship grow as Spirit goes from a wild animal to needing Fortuna's help rescuing his herd. When Spirit finally does kneel for Fortuna to ride him the first time, you can't help but smile. Even with the quick runtime in "Spirit Untamed," the movie properly invests in the relationship between Spirit and Fortuna.

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Now, as much as I've gushed about "Spirit Untamed," it does have flaws. For starters, the villain, a bandit named Hendricks, is extremely one-dimensional. He is as stock a western villain as you can get, which really is a shame because I absolutely adore Walton Goggins. "Justified" is my favorite television show, and I really would have appreciated Boyd Crowder's voice being lent to a more developed character.

In "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron," we're given a fantastic antagonist in the colonel. He's a hard military man, but he's also a multifaceted character. After Spirit and Little Creek make that dramatic final jump over the canyon gap, a soldier moves to shoot them, but the colonel forces him to lower his gun. The final nod between the colonel and Spirit always left me with chills.

Then there's the soundtrack. The original "Spirit" had songs by Bryan Adams and Hans Zimmer. It's packed with powerful tracks like "Sound the Bugle" and "You Can't Take Me." By comparison, "Spirit Untamed" felt lackluster in the music department. Amie Doherty didn't make a bad soundtrack for the reboot. It just didn't seem to deliver as much of a punch.

I also found it a little strange that so much of the family conflict in this movie between Fortuna and her father is due to the mother we see die at the start of the film. And yet, "Spirit Untamed" offers us not a single flashback of Milagro Navarro (Eiza Gonzalez) aside from the opening scene. I wish we could have seen a little more of Fortuna's mother. She performed stunts while riding a horse. What an interesting character we could have gotten to know.

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My brain has been comparing these two movies over and over for the last several days. And I've concluded that I love them equally but for very different reasons.

"Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron" is a dramatic tale but at its heart, I feel like it was aimed more at little boys. Your three main leads, Spirit, Little Creek, and the colonel are all voiced by men. Matt Damon is in the driver's seat. And the story focuses on Spirit's quest to return to his mother and herd. It teaches a lesson about never giving up.

But "Spirit Untamed" is the story of a girl who befriends a wild horse and learns where her true home is. It's more about Fortuna discovering the kind of relationship her mother had with horses and trying to embrace that in herself. Your main leads are all females (except for Spirit). The film is aimed toward younger girls. It teaches a lesson about teamwork, friendship and trusting your horse.

I like that "Spirit Untamed" has its own identity and isn't just an effortless copy of the original. It's very silly at times, but I love how the movie leans into it. During one scene, Abigail is making shadow puppets that are physically impossible to produce using just one's own hands, and one of the girls quietly remarks, "how is she doing that?" It's an unexpected joke that left me snickering.

That really seemed to be a recurring theme for me with "Spirit Untamed." I was just consistently and pleasantly surprised by the characters and the animation. There's a wonderful point of view shot where Spirit walks cautiously across this narrow ridge. It's inventive like most of the film.

DreamWorks invested more heart and sweat than studios typically give to reboots, and I'm all the more grateful for it.

In “Spirit: Untamed,” feral Kiger mustangs Boomerang, Spirit and Little Creek allow themselves to be ridden by, respectively, Abigail (voice of Mckenna Grace), Lucky (Isabela Merced) and Pru (Marsai Martin).
In “Spirit: Untamed,” feral Kiger mustangs Boomerang, Spirit and Little Creek allow themselves to be ridden by, respectively, Abigail (voice of Mckenna Grace), Lucky (Isabela Merced) and Pru (Marsai Martin).
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