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Film Review: Despite Predictable Silliness, “Spirit Untamed” Shines in Its Portrait of Strong Young Women

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | June 3rd, 2021

Film poster: “Spirit Untamed”

Spirit Untamed (Elaine Bogan/Ennio Torresan, 2021) 2½ out of 4 stars.

Though nothing extraordinary in terms of animation or story structure, Spirit Untamed proves not only mostly satisfying, but also joyful in its empowerment of the young female characters at the narrative’s center. It is part of DreamWorks Animation’s “Spirit” franchise that includes not only the 2002 Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron but the 2017 (and beyond) Spirit Riding Free series on Netflix. Having seen none of these earlier works, I came in pretty cold, and so can only address what is on the screen here. Fortunately, what backstory exists is quickly explained, and one can enjoy this new work without need of its predecessors.

Lucky (Isabela Merced, Dora and the Lost City of Gold) lost her mother long ago and now lives far away from her father in a big city with her aunt and grandfather. When she proves a bit much for this latter, disrupting the launch of his political campaign for governor, he decides to send her back to Miradero, the border town where her mother died and her father manages the railroad (owned by grandpa). So, accompanied by Aunt Cora (Julianne Moore, Bel Canto), off she goes into what looks like a 19th-century Western landscape, traveling by steam engine across the plains towards a place and a man she only barely remembers.

Lucky (Isabela Merced) in SPIRIT UNTAMED ©DreamWorks Animation

Along the way, she spies a herd of wild horses, the lead stallion of which is almost able to touch her outstretched hand at the back of the caboose. Those horses also, unfortunately, catch the eye of a band of outlaws, who thereafter plan to capture and sell them. Unaware of these machinations, Lucky and Cora disembark in Miradero, finding father Jim (Jake Gyllenhaal, Spider-Man: Far from Home) both distracted and frightened at the prospect of caring for his daughter once more. Since his beloved wife died in an accident on horseback – she was a performing acrobatic rider – in a scene we see in the opening prologue, he tries everything to keep Lucky away from horses, especially wild ones. But she has other plans.

Soon, after that mustang she almost touched is captured and brought to a nearby corral, she befriends him, naming him Spirit and slowly learning to ride him (if he’ll let her). She also makes the acquaintance of two local girls, Pru (Marsai Martin, Diane on ABC’s Black-ish) and Abigail (Mckenna Grace, Annabelle Comes Home), and they quickly become close. When Spirit breaks out of the enclosure, it leads to the discovery of his nearby herd, which then raises the stakes as those outlaws see dollar signs in place of beauty. Despite her father’s strong wishes that she stay away, Lucky decides to save Spirit and the rest, aided by Pru and Abigail.

l-r: Lucky (Isabela Merced), Pru (Marsai Martin) and Abigail (Mckenna Grace) in SPIRIT UNTAMED ©DreamWorks Animation

The voice performances are all adequate, though no one stands out; unfortunately, the arc of the drama is predictable, even if there are fine surprises and twists mixed in. The greatest charm of the movie is its emphasis on the three girls and their strength and resilience in the face of real threats. Despite this positive element and the simultaneous celebration of Miradero’s diverse culture, there’s an unfortunate silliness to much of the plot that detracts and distracts from the best parts. Ultimately, however, what remains is the sense that girls can do anything they set their mind to, and more power to them.

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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