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DreamWorks Animation Returns to the Frontier in ‘Spirit Untamed’

Elaine Bogan directs the latest chapter in the ‘Spirit’ franchise, about a headstrong girl who finds a kindred spirit in a wild Mustang, being released by Universal exclusively in theatres on June 4.

Galloping into cinemas June 4, DreamWorks Animation’s newest animated feature, Spirit Untamed tells the story of a headstrong girl longing for a place to belong, who discovers a kindred spirit when her life intersects with a wild horse. Directed by studio veteran Elaine Bogan (Netflix and DreamWorks Animation Television’s Trollhunters: Tales of Arcadia), the film is a next chapter of sorts in their ‘Spirit’ franchise, a new story set within the world first shared in the studio’s 2002 Oscar-nominated film Spirit: Stallion of Cimarron and expanded in their Emmy-winning 2017 TV series, Spirit Riding Free.

Spirit Untamed stars Isabela Merced, Julianne Moore, Jake Gyllenhaal, Marsai Martin, Mckenna Grace, Andre Braugher, Walton Goggins and Eiza González. The film is produced by Karen Foster (co-producer, How to Train Your Dragon), co-directed by Ennio Torresan (head of story, The Boss Baby), and scored by composer Amie Doherty (Amazon’s Undone, DreamWorks Animation’s Marooned). Universal is releasing the film exclusively in theatres rather than via streaming or some simultaneous combination. 

According to Bogan, an “animation and horse obsessed youngster” who “watched and re-watched Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron,” the success and popularity of the TV series prompted the new feature film. “Our story is based on characters in the TV series and was written by its creator Aury Wallington along with Kristin Hahn,” she reveals. “But it’s not a sequel to either the first film or the TV series. Yes, there is a character named Spirit central to all three projects, but Spirit Untamed is a standalone sort of next chapter in the world. This Spirit is not even the same horse as the one in the first film. Our Spirit was created by the TV series and is thought to be the grandson of the original Spirit. You can tell by the new white stripe on his face. Same lineage, new generation, kind of like the revival of each project in the franchise.”

For the new film, Bogan and co-director Ennio Torresan “tried to take all of the really great adventure, friendship, family relationships, and empowering female characters that already existed and apply them to a deeper cinematic world with huge scope for the big screen, with environments that make the audience feel like they’re in on the adventure too.”

“Giddyup!” she adds. 

Check out the official trailer:

In the film, Lucky Prescott (Isabela Merced, Dora and the Lost City of Gold) never really knew her late mother, Milagro Navarro (Eiza González, Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw), a fearless horse-riding stunt performer from a small frontier town, Miradero. Like her mother, Lucky isn’t a fan of rules and restrictions, much to the concern of her Aunt Cora (Academy Award winner Julianne Moore). Having grown up on the East Coast, Lucky presses her own luck with one too many risky escapades; Cora packs them both up and moves back to Miradero with Lucky’s father, Jim (Oscar nominee Jake Gyllenhaal).

Unimpressed with the sleepy little town, Lucky has a change of heart when she meets Spirit, a wild Mustang who shares her independent streak, and befriends two local riders, Abigail Stone (Mckenna Grace, Captain Marvel) and Pru Granger (Marsai Martin, Little); Pru’s father, stable owner Al Granger (Emmy winner Andre Braugher, Fox’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine), is Lucky’s father’s best friend.

When a heartless horse wrangler (Emmy nominee Walton Goggins, FX’s Justified) and his team plan to capture Spirit and his herd and auction them off to a life of captivity and hard labor, Lucky enlists her new friends to help rescue the horse that helped Lucky discover an unexpected connection to her mother’s legacy and to her Mexican heritage.

In her role as director, Bogan was involved in every area of the production. She notes, “From maintaining a solid creative voice and meaningful message through the script and storyboarding phase; to overseeing consistent style and tone in design, layout, animation, and lighting; finding the best performances with actors while letting them bring their own specific charm and personality to the screen; and then making sure all of those elements are supported when adding score, sound effects and the final mix; there are many funny hats to wear as a feature animation director.”

“Above all that though, the most important part of the job to me is making sure everyone on the team feels they’ve got leadership they trust enough to hop onto a giant ship with as they steer into the abyss of the animation process,” she continues. “Between myself, Karen Foster and Ennio Torresan, we felt we had a great team at the wheel to keep people happy, motivated, and creatively inspired.”

For Bogan, Torresan, and Foster, providing strong leadership during the tightly scheduled production was key. “Particularly on the schedule we made this movie, we all knew the challenges we were about to face together,” she explains. “It was imperative that we went on with a confidant and clear idea that everyone could drive towards, no turning back! The success of this production solely relied on the motivation of the entire crew working together, and to maintain that you need people who are happy, supported and feel like a part of the creative process.”

Stylistically, the film’s design stayed within the broader range of larger character and world concepts that the TV Series provided, pushed even farther for the planned theatrical release. The filmmakers, along with production designer Paul Duncan, worked to create a style that brought something new to the franchise, that felt like it had enough cinematic scope for the big screen, but still maintained enough of what audiences love about the TV series. With a much smaller budget than most animated features.

“Because we knew we were designing a world and characters for a big 50-foot theatre screen instead of a 50-inch TV screen or laptop, we wanted something with a lot more depth, tactile surfacing, and atmosphere,” Bogan notes. “What we did do was draw a lot from what really inspired us in both the first film and the series. For example, the new designs of the horses in Spirit Untamed are largely inspired by the original Spirit designs by James Baxter. Our character designer, lead modeler and head of animation worked very closely with the original sculpts and model sheets to create a design that would both translate into a good 3D design and fit into the new environments we created first. Alongside of that, we leaned heavily on the human character designs from the TV series the fans all love and revamped them to find harmony with the new horses and environments. We all particularly loved the incredible diversity of characters in the series and really wanted to celebrate and dive deeper into that aspect of design for the town of Miradero itself.”

Many parts of the world were referenced to create an environment that felt it could be in anyone’s backyard waiting for adventure. “It worked out great that Paul and I are both massive fans of the outdoors and traveling all over US National Parks,” Bogan says. “In the beginning I remember drooling all over each other’s vacation photography and our ‘places to visit’ lists.”

She continues, “I shared a lot of horse photography I’d taken over the years in hopes it would inspire thoughts on lighting, environment and character in the movie too -- hopefully, that didn’t bore everyone to tears (HAHA). Once Paul created a plan to tell a visual story by going from a very structured environment with a lot of straight lines and cold colors in the city into a more organic, warm, and natural feel in Miradero, we were off! I loved that the environments and colors started to reflect the story of Lucky going from a young girl feeling lost and confused to one who connects with nature, her family, and her true identity. Felt like a solid plan.”

Like most every project coming to screens large and small in the coming months, Spirit Untamed had its production upended by the COVID-19 pandemic. The challenge of directing her film remotely fundamentally changed the normal creative collaboration dynamic Bogan relies upon. “Creativity at its best is often very spontaneous in animation, and when every conversation has to be scheduled and held over a video call, that can be pretty challenging,” she admits. “I do think we were impacted by the pandemic, but fortunately not to the point that it stopped us from getting the film done on time. Animation is such a collaborative process, and most of the creative work doesn’t happen within a Zoom meeting… of which there were thousands.”

“What I did really miss about being in a shared space together was the in-person collaboration,” she continues, “stopping someone quickly in the hallway to share an idea for a goofy joke or an important story beat, and just the sheer amount of moral and creative support that happens when we can all rally together as a team. Goofing around is my favorite way to inspire weird hilarious and important conversation about story, but we had to find other ways.”

Summing up the film’s long path to completion, and her hope for its impact on audiences, Bogan concludes, “We’re all incredibly proud of what we were able to accomplish, and sincerely hope both existing fans and newcomers will be as excited as we are of this movie. If this movie ends up inspiring even one young person in the audience to challenge the norm and find happiness by being who they want to be instead of being what others think they should be, then yes, this will be the film I originally set out to make. Absolutely.”

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.