While reading the credits of the new animated feature “Spirit Untamed,” a few things stick out: The first is the star-studded voice cast, but the second is how many women played key roles in bringing the film to life. “Spirit Untamed,” the second in the “Spirit” franchise, which also includes “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” (2002) and the Netflix series “Spirit Riding Free,” is written by Aury Wallington and Kristin Hahn and directed by Elaine Bogan (her co-director is Ennio Torresan Jr.). It has a female producer, composer and other female department heads. One can’t help but feel that the gender representation behind the camera is an integral part of the authentic sense of girls’ empowerment espoused by the film, the story of a young girl and her unique connection to a wild mustang, Spirit.
What’s also striking about “Spirit Untamed” is that the story is grounded within a (somewhat) realistic, recognizable world, in the 19th-century American Southwest. So many animated films tend toward the supernatural, the folkloric, the magical, populated with friendly monsters and talking animals as the medium allows. It’s somewhat refreshing to see an animated film tell what is essentially a formulaic hero’s journey story without relying on the extraordinary.
Isabel Merced voices the young heroine, Lucky, a misfit, accident-prone girl with a wild red mane of hair (remind you of any iconic undersea princesses?). Living with her stuffy grandparents, she’s sent off to spend the summer with her father (Jake Gyllenhaal), from whom she’s been estranged since her mother’s death when she was a baby. He’s a railroad man in the town of Miradero, and as soon as she arrives, Lucky finally finds that she fits right in. The Mexican caballeras who call her “Fortuna” bestow her with a sash like the one her mother used to wear on horseback, and Lucky immediately falls in with a couple of capable cowgirls, Pru (Marsai Martin) and Abigail (McKenna Grace).
Something else attracts Lucky’s attention: a handsome Buckskin mustang, whom she dubs Spirit. The horse also catches the eye of the dastardly Hendricks (Walton Goggins), who sets about rounding up Spirit and his herd, intending to sell the wild animals for profit. The plucky Lucky, described as both “brave” and “reckless,” sets off on a journey to stop Hendricks and in doing so, she connects with Spirit and embraces the destiny of her mother’s legacy.
The animation style is crisp, colorful and bright. Though it’s a bit basic and nothing innovative in terms of the art form, it fits the themes and aesthetic of the film, as well as the audience of budding horse girls at whom this film is aimed. While the film is not a musical, musical elements are integrated into the fabric of the story itself, with a few contemporary pop and folk tunes on the soundtrack mixed in with traditional camp songs sung by Abigail. The plot moves as swiftly as a wild pony racing across the plains, which is good, because if it was any longer, “Spirit Untamed” could have overstayed its welcome. Ultimately, it feels more suited for repeat living room watches, rather than a big-screen theater event.
However, “Spirit Untamed” is a sweet film with a moving message about embracing family, heritage and most importantly, yourself, just the way you are, even if that means bravery and recklessness often go hand in hand.