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Directed by Elaine Bogan
Written by Aury Wallington and Kristin Hahn
Starring Isabela Merced, Julianne Moore and Mckenna Grace.
Classification G; 88 minutes
Coming from the DreamWorks stables, you’d expect a little more, well, spirit from their latest animated adventure – especially since it features a headstrong female lead wanting to win over the titular mustang. Their latest offering, Spirit Untamed, stays well within a literal realm, however. Perfectly serviceable for younger audiences, particularly those with an affinity for horses, it never quite soars beyond a run-of-the-mill story.
Tragedy strikes within minutes of the opening scene. Lucky Prescott (Isabel Merced, Dora and the Lost City of Gold) is but a babe in arms of her adoring but weirdly silent father, noshing on strawberries, when her mother Milagro Navarro (Eiza González) dies while performing a horse-riding stunt. Lucky is shipped off to her paternal grandfather’s home, far away from Miradero, the small town on the edge of the American frontier where her father Jim (Jake Gyllenhaal) continues to live – seemingly in mourning.
Lucky has her mother’s genes, though. She does try to humour her Aunt Cora (Julianne Moore), be mindful of her gentle admonishments, and live by her office-seeking grandfather’s expectations of a young woman in polite society. But she always ends up making the headlines in all the wrong ways.
Naturally, Lucky is packed off again – this time to Miradero to spend a summer in the country and keep out of trouble. Lucky begrudgingly ties her hair and gussies up in a dress for the train ride. But the sight of a golden-skinned wild horse running alongside the train she’s aboard brings out her own spirited side.
The first sight of Miradero doesn’t impress Lucky much. Neither is she thrilled to reconnect with a father who hadn’t made an effort to keep in touch. However, Lucky soon starts to find glimpses of her mother in Miradero. She also re-encounters the mustang she’d seen on her train ride into town, and befriends two horseback riders, Abigail (McKenna Grace; Captain Marvel) and Pru Granger (Marsai Martin; Black-ish). Her new friends teach her how to win over the horse, whom she names Spirit.
When a group of no-good horse wranglers hatch a plan to capture Spirit and his herd of wild horses, Lucky leads her new friends on a dangerous expedition through rugged terrain. Will Lucky and her friends be able to rescue the beasts in order to release them to their natural habitat? Even the most naive viewers will be able to guess the ending.
Despite the predictable plot, there are moments of genuine delight – and they all come from the fresh talent. The friendship between Lucky, Abigail and Pru is truly charming. Martin’s turn as the sardonic Pru had me chuckling – you can all but hear her rolling her eyes at points in the dialogue. Moore and Gyllenhaal were clearly cast to lend some prestige to the project, but their parts are peripheral at best, especially Gyllenhaal as the absent-minded father.
Spirit Untamed is the latest spin-off of Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron animated movie that came out in 2002, starring Matt Damon as the voice of the mustang. Reviews of that film called it a pleasurable watch, despite its hackneyed plot that took a textbook-style approach to American settler history while imparting a lesson about the beauty of the natural world. It was seen as a well-rendered animation of a metaphorical story for its time.
The animation in Spirit Untamed has come a long way from its source material. The film seems constantly bathed in golden-hour light, which gives it a dreamlike quality. It’s also wonderful to see a strong cast of young women with agency leading the narrative. However, the story also leaps from one chapter to the next, without much development of either the human or animal characters.
While the cast represents a diversity of voices, we never truly understand what that diversity represents beyond a couple of Spanish, or Spanish-accented, words thrown into the dialogue. Even Lucky is referred to by her English name, versus her given name Fortuna – without any discussion of that decision.
Spirit Untamed is a pleasant-enough diversion for a lazy summer afternoon. But young ones will likely get more meaningful instructions on the majesty of nature or a chance to exercise their independent streak by stepping away from the screen and into the physical world.
Spirit Untamed opens June 4 in Canadian theatres, dependent on public-health restrictions
In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.