From the floundering DreamWorks Animation comes Spirit Untamed, a “sequel” to the 2002 film Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (which apparently also spawned an animated Netflix series Spirit Riding Free). Without having seen either of those, I sat down to watch the latest chapter as a newbie and ended my viewing experience not at all a convert to this tale of a young girl who finds a kindred spirit in a wild horse that would just as soon crush her spine with its hoofs as it would befriend her.
I didn’t time it and I don’t know what film is the current record holder, but Spirit Untamed has got to be in the running for the animation film that kills off a parent in the fastest time. No sooner has the movie begun then the female circus performer who also happens to be mother to Lucky Prescott (Isabela Merced, from Dora and the Lost City of Gold, Transformers: The Last Knight, Instant Family) dies while doing a trick on a trusted horse during a show. Lucky is mortified, but not as much as her father Jim (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is so worried about his daughter’s safety from that moment on that he sends her away, out of the Wild West, to live with her Aunt Cora (Julianne Moore). A few years have gone by, and Lucky and Cora are heading back to Jim’s for the first time since Lucky was sent away. On the train ride, Lucky spots a group of wild horses galloping across the plains, and she makes a connection to one in particular.
Also on the train are a group of villainous types, led by one particular scumbag voiced by Walton Goggins. Upon arriving, Lucky is met with a town that is very much built around horses and performers who execute daring stunts on horses. Her father is instantly protective of her going anywhere near the horses, but that doesn’t stop her from making friends with Pru (Marsai Martin) and Abigail (Mckenna Grace), both of whom are excellent riders and give Lucky tips on gaining the trust of a recently captured wild horse (yep, the same one from the train) so she can eventually ride him. Also in the town is Pru’s father Al (Andre Braugher), who works with Jim, and stunt horse rider Milagro Navarro (Eiza González).
Directed by Elaine Bogan (making her feature debut) and co-director Ennio Torresan, Spirit Untamed is my least favorite type of animated (or any) family film, one in which the young lead character disobeys parents at every turn. And in the case of this film, their advice is solid and would likely have kept Lucky out of a ton of the danger that she eventually finds herself in. But aside from that, the visuals are flat to the point of feeling artistically lazy, and while having a vocal cast of this magnitude at its disposal, the film never takes flight, even when the horses are running and jumping like no real horse ever has.
And it’s not enough that Lucky puts her own life in danger, but she ends up dragging her two young friends with her when the bandits lead by Goggins capture Spirit and dozens of his fellow wild horses to sell them for profit, leaving Lucky no choice but to use her limited riding skills to traverse mountains and other hazards to catch up to the baddies. There are headstrong characters, and then there are those who would willingly endanger others for purely self-centered ends. And yes, I’m fully aware these are animated characters doing fictional things, but the lessons of Spirit Untamed seem to revolve around being selfish and ignoring good advice at every turn. That being said, even if the lessons were more responsible, I don’t think it would have resulted in me enjoying the film any more than I did because the execution is so basic and uninspired.
Whenever I watch a film clearly aimed at children, I attempt to imagine what a kid’s reaction to that movie will be. I suppose there’s a certain beauty and expressiveness to the way the horses are animated, but there’s so much danger in the course of Lucky’s journey, I don’t know how that can be translated into fun. All I know is that I was in a state of low-level agony while watching this one. Kids and their parents deserve better if they’re going to hit the theaters to see anything these days.
Spirit Untamed opens Friday in theaters.
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