Despite one of the more impressive voice casts assembled in recent years – Julianne Moore, Jake Gyllenhaal, Walton Goggins, and Isabela Merced, to name a few – Spirit Untamed is suitably middle-of-the-road fare. It’s sweet and harmless, but it’s aimed so specifically at the young female demographic that its universal appeal feels ultimately limited.
Playing it relatively straight, with nary a hint of pop-culture references or juvenile humour in sight, Spirit Untamed‘s safe formula is embodied in its lead character, “Lucky” (Merced), full name Fortuna Esperanza Prescott, a plucky tween whose spirit often gets her into bouts of trouble, so much so that her loving, though frustrated aunt (Moore’s Cora Prescott) has to accompany her to the small rural town where her father (Gyllenhaal’s James Prescott) resides.
Daddy dearest being something of an emotionally stunted character, and Lucky having little knowledge that her late mother (Eiza González) was a world-famous horse rider, means this excursion back home will be one heavy on sentiment and healing. It also means that Lucky will unknowingly tap into her mother’s fearlessness when she befriends – or intends to befriend – Spirit, an unbridled Mustang, whose independence mirrors that of Lucky. Oh the symmetry!
With new found friends in the similarly adventurous Pru (Marsai Martin) and Abigail (Mckenna Grace), and an evil horse wrangler (Goggins) intent on capturing Spirit to auction him off thrown in for narrative measure, Lucky’s homecoming is exactly as excitingly safe as one would expect. Though the Aury Wallington/Kristin Hahn-penned script offers up a few neat action sequences and an alarmingly dark undercurrent – if you look closely there’s suggestive metaphors pertaining to slavery and trafficking in the manner the horses are treated – the bright, Mattel-like colour pallet and uplifting soundtrack keep Spirit Untamed very much on a safe pathway.
Though a product like Spirit Untamed feels remarkably uncomplicated in a time where animation is truly testing the limits of imagination, its simplicity, however much of a downfall it may be perceived as, allows Elaine Bogan‘s brisk film to ride by on a harmlessness that’s likely to be welcomed by its core audience.
THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Spirit Untamed is screening in Australian theatres from June 12th, 2021.