It has been a long time since I've enjoyed an animated feature as much as I enjoyed Spirit Untamed, a gentle and tender beast of a film about two untamed spirits, one a wild Mustang named Spirit and the other a young girl known as Lucky (voiced by Isabela Merced, Dora and the Lost City of Gold).
It's Lucky who has been banished to the countryside for the Summer alongside her Aunt Cora (Julianne Moore) after yet another adventurous mishap in the midst of her grandfather's political campaign. It's not the Summer that Lucky had planned and it's made even more awkward by a reunion with her father, Jim (Jake Gyllenhaal), who'd sent her to live with her aunt following her mother's death years earlier.
A reworking of the pilot episode of the Netflix series Spirit Riding Free and a loose follow-up to Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Spirit Untamed is a film that sneaks up on you with its family friendly adventures, warm spirit, incredible tenderness, and stunningly beautiful capturing of the equine spirit.
The film is the feature directorial debut from Elaine Bogan alongside co-director Ennio Torresan, Jr. Bogan, previously a storyboard artist who has worked on the likes of DreamWorks titles Monsters vs. Aliens and How to Train Your Dragon (likely my favorite animated feature series), infuses Spirit Untamed with uncommon intelligence and wonder and a deep understanding of horses like Spirit. An equestrian herself from a young age, Bogan clearly understands and, perhaps more importantly, made her animation team understand how to truly bring Spirit's entire being to life.
Seriously, I loved this film.
Unsurprisingly, Spirit Untamed captured Heartland Film's Truly Moving Picture Award and arrives in theaters only on June 4th just as moviegoing shows signs of returning to some semblance of normalcy as restless audiences long for cinematic escape.
Spirit Untamed possesses a Mustang's spirit, beautiful and precise animation, a stellar ensemble vocal cast, and diverse characters brought to life by a diverse cast.
Spirit Untamed is written by Spirit Riding Free creator Aury Wallington and Kristin Hahn and tells the story of Lucky, brought magnificently to life by Merced's warm and winning and emotionally honest vocals. The 12-year-old is returning to her hometown of Miradero. It's a place she barely remembers having left at the age of two after her mother's (voiced by Eiza Gonzalez) death and her father's unsoothable grief.
Gently, Spirit Untamed deals with a father's grief and a daughter's sense of abandonment and the healing that unfolds for father, daughter, and a Mustang named Spirit. First encountering Lucky on the train ride to Miradero, Lucky and her new pals Pru (Marsai Martin, Blackish) and Abigail (Mckenna Grace, Young Sheldon and Troop Zero) catch wind of a plan by some local ne'er do wells to catch the cantankerous Spirit and his herd and ship them off for a life of hard labor and they decide to do whatever it takes to rescue the horses.
The story is simple and filled with an abundance of heart. The trio of Merced, Martin, and Grace is a winning trio filled with camaraderie and identifiable stumbles toward discovering one's own strengths. Jake Gyllenhaal infuses Jim Prescott with all the inner turmoil of a father who's made the best decisions he could but is learning how to make better ones. Julianne Moore, as Aunt Cora, is an Aunt Cora we'd all want.
Seriously, can I have an Aunt Cora?
Walton Goggins is here as yet another baddie. Goggins seems to play a baddie better than just about anyone in Hollywood and he manages to pull it off whether it's Tarantino or family-friendly animation.
I wonder if he's just drawn that way?
Amie Doherty's original score captures all the adventurous highs and emotional peaks and valleys, while original tunes like Becky G's "You Belong" and Merced's "Fearless" fit the film perfectly.
With an untamed spirit and a relentless heart, Spirit Untamed is easily one of 2021's best animated features to date and definitely one of my favorite moviegoing experiences of the year. It's the kind of film that sneaks up on you with its charm and warmth and holds on to you with winning characters and a story worth believing in. You'll love Spirit and Lucky and everyone else in Miradero.
Oh, wait. Except for Hendricks (Goggins).
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic