‘Spirit Untamed’ is cute, but it’s also a paint-by-numbers ride

Lucky Prescott’s (Isabela Merced) name doesn’t suit her, at least for the first 10-plus years of her life.  Her mom – Milagro Navarro (Elza Gonzalez), a world-class horse rider – dies in a circus accident (within the opening few minutes of this movie).  To make matters worse, instead of her father, Jim Prescott (Jake Gyllenhaal), providing oceans of support, he unilaterally and inexplicably decides that his sister, Cora (Julianne Moore), will care for Lucky. 

Cora says to Lucky, “Something broke in your father.”

And how! 

Jim later explains his actions.  He wanted to keep his daughter safe rather than raise her under his roof.  If that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to you, then you and I agree. 

Lucky’s father, Jim Prescott

So, Lucky lives with her Aunt Cora in a large, east coast city, while Jim resides in Miradero, which seems to sit in the American Southwest or Mexico base on the animated topography.

All seems well and good until Lucky – who’s a bit wild at heart – ruins her grandfather’s run-for-governor campaign announcement.  So, for some sudden, oddball reason, Aunt Cora immediately decides that she and Lucky should move to Miradero faster than you can say, “We’re doing what now?  Sure, whatever.”

Now, Jim, Lucky, and Cora all reside in one spot, and miraculously, our 10-year-old girl shows zero resentment towards her father for giving her up a decade ago.  Hey, Jim seems like a nice enough guy, even though he sports the spine of a single stand of boiled angel hair pasta.  All is forgiven, or actually, barely acknowledged.  Since Cora is also in Miradero, they both can care for Lucky, but this plan could’ve been employed immediately after Milagro’s death, right?

Narratively, the script bumps into a few of these head-scratching logic issues, but one can suppose that these problems are less important than the animated movie’s primary goal, which is to grant Lucky a horse adventure, one geared towards small children, especially girls. 

In that respect, directors Elaine Bogan and Ennio Torresan’s film delivers its promise, but adults might wish for a more regal, complex tale.  Then again, this DreamWorks feature does follow Disney’s playbook of killing off the mom, so even though “Spirit Untamed” doesn’t offer a whole lot of depth, a least there’s some familiarity, albeit twisted and deeply frustrating.  See also “Bambi” (1942), “Finding Nemo” (2003), and countless others, including “Cruella” (2021).

“Spirit Untamed” is preceded by the feature “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron” (2002) and eight seasons of “Spirit Riding Free” (2017 – 2019) on Netflix.  Admittedly, I haven’t seen the previous film or animated series, but wow, eight seasons!

Anyway, Lucky settles into this new town by meeting a couple of friends her age, Abigail (Mckenna Grace) and Pru (Marsai Martin), and also a wild Mustang named Spirit.  These two kiddos ride horses, and soon enough, so does Lucky.  She feels that Spirit is her kindred spirit.  They are both fierce and carefree, and Lucky chooses Spirit as her horse, but does Spirit choose her?

Abigail, Lucky with Spirit, and Pru

Well, the girls tell the young Ms. Prescott that a way to a horse’s heart is through the 3 C’s: care, confidence, and carrots, so naturally, she wins over Spirit with…apples. 

This genuine bliss immediately fades, however, when a crude wrangler named Hendricks (Walton Goggins) rustles Spirit’s family for auction, and Lucky, Abigail, and Pru form a girl-power triad to rescue the horse troupe.  They are three tiny kids riding their ponies through rugged, mountainous terrain that would give old-school western actors John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and Jimmy Stewart reason for pause, but these girls got this, and they have bracelets too!  Think of the “Stand by Me” (1986) boys, except without the personal reflections, infighting, mental illness, and of course, walking.   No, these girls giggle and ride their way to catch Hendricks and his associate baddies, hopefully.

Arran Baker and his animators do a commendable job with bringing the American West (or Mexico) on the big screen.  It resembles a more sophisticated version of the Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner backdrops, and the perilous journey includes a daunting climb up Heck Mountain.

(Note, This critic watched “Spirit Untamed” at home, but the purple buttes and orange skies probably pop even better on the big screen.)

Spirit and Lucky

Meanwhile, Jim fails miserably at preserving Lucky’s safety or even keeping track of his daughter, but then again, he is way out of parenting practice after abandoning her.  Still, he and Cora may find a way to catch up with this determined preteen. 

You’ll have no problem keeping up with “Spirit Untamed”, a paint-by-numbers animated feature that will probably delight kids under 8 years young, as it delivers its aforementioned intentions.  It’s cute and harmless, but it’s also generally forgettable, although it’ll be difficult not to shake Jim’s lousy decision-making.  Well, I guess there’s a lesson for adults too.

⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Images and Trailer credits: DreamWorks

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