The “Spirit” animated universe includes the 2002 film “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” and the Netflix series “Spirit Riding Free,” which debuted in 2017 – but while the new DreamWorks theatrical release “Spirit Untamed” is a spinoff/sequel of those previous chapters, it works just fine as a stand-alone, good old-fashioned Western with a trio of 12-year-old girls as the heroes, and that’s pretty cool, right?
“Spirit Untamed” reboots the pilot episode of the Netflix series and expands the story to a feature-length adventure filled with madcap action sequences (some played to comedic effect, some harrowing), infectious tunes and the obligatory heartfelt moments, involving love and loss and friendship and family.
Isabela Merced gives a winning voice performance as one Lucky Prescott, a plucky and rebellious adolescent who has been living under the care of her Aunt Cora (Julianne Moore) on the East Coast ever since she was a little girl and her mother Milagro (Eiza Gonzalez), a famous horse-riding stunt performer, was killed in an accident. After Lucky’s troublesome antics throw a wrench into her grandfather’s political campaign, it’s decided Aunt Cora will accompany Lucky on a train bound for Lucky’s small hometown of Miradero, where they’ll spend the summer with Lucky’s father, Jim (Jake Gyllenhaal), who hasn’t seen his daughter since she was 2 years old and he was too grief-stricken to look after her.
It’s on the train ride that Lucky first has a connection with Spirit, the leader of a pack of wild horses running alongside the train. While Lucky engages in death-defying stunt work only an animated girl could pull off, the horses also draw the attention of Hendricks (Walton Goggins), a cunning and evil horse wrangler who hatches a plan to capture the entire herd and sell them off as workhorses that will spend the rest of their lives doing hard labor until it literally kills them. Oooh, that Hendricks, he’s the worst!
When Cora and Lucky arrive in Miradero, Lucky quickly makes friends with the smart and practical Pru (Marsai Martin) and the goofy and sweet Abigail (Mckenna Grace), who teach her the ropes of horse riding and encourage her as she tries to bond with Spirit by feeding him apples, lots and lots of apples. The girls are great together; there are no contrived rivalries or jealousies or misunderstandings. They just instantly bond, and they’ve got each other’s backs throughout the story.
Things aren’t going so smoothly on the home front. Jim looks like a traditional Western hero, but in fact he’s a bit of a hoarder and an eccentric, and he’s spectacularly ill-equipped to suddenly become a father to Lucky – especially because he’s wracked with guilt over sending Lucky away. Also, he has one strict rule for Lucky: No riding horses. That’s what killed her mother, and Jim won’t have his daughter at risk. Of course, the one thing Lucky wants to do more than anything else is make a connection with Spirit to the point where the great stallion will allow her to ride with him through the great wide open.
After Hendricks and his minions capture Spirit and the herd and force them onto a train bound for an auction, the story becomes more and more fantastical, as Lucky and Pru and Abigail set off on a rescue mission that requires them to pull off feats that would test the limits of most comic book superheroes. As the action gets wilder and wackier, we’re actually a bit less involved in the story. Yes, this is an animated fable, but when the adolescent heroes suddenly have near-superpower abilities, it lowers the emotional stakes.
Still, director Elaine Bogan has crafted a rousing adventure story, and songs such as “You Belong (Tu Lugar),” “Join Up” and “Better With You” are beautifully performed. So many animated films are multi-layered efforts brimming with jokes only the adults will catch, but “Spirit Untamed” is pure and unbridled family fun, pardon the pun. The animation is crisp and light, the voice performances are crackling good, and the story of Spirit and the girl who became his best friend is filled with heart.