Review: 'Spirit Untamed' is a perfectly serviceable animated film, but is that enough?

The new animation features the voices of Jake Gyllenhaal and Isabela Merced

A scene from 'Spirit Untamed', which follows the adventures of Fortuna 'Lucky' Prescott, voiced by Isabela Merced. Dreamworks Animation/Universal Pictures
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Set in the 19th century, the spin-off to 2002’s Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron and recent Netflix series Spirit Riding Free follows the adventures of Fortuna “Lucky” Prescott (voiced by Isabela Merced).

After ruining her grandfather’s political campaign, Lucky moves to the small rural village of Miradero where she tries to reconnect with her distant, overprotective, widowed father Jim (Jake Gyllenhaal), but mostly bonds with Spirit the horse.

When a visiting horse wrangler Hendricks (Walton Goggins) and his evil posse plan to steal Spirit and his herd, Lucky takes it upon herself to protect the animals. Even though this only hurts her relationship with Jim even further, she pairs up with her new friends Pru (Marsai Martin) and Abigail (McKenna Grace) to try and keep the horses safe.

With the vocal talents of Merced, Gyllenhaal and Goggins, as well as Oscar-winner Julianne Moore, Andre Braugher and Eiza Gonzalez, you can’t help but go into Spirit Untamed with a little bit of expectation.

It doesn’t take long for that to disappear.

From the very first shot of Spirit Untamed, the animation looks flat and outdated. Composer Amie Doherty’s pedestrian and maudlin music quickly suggests the cartoon Western will probably be lacking any semblance of originality. Something that’s confirmed when Aury Wallington and Kristin Hahn are unable to breathe much life into the film with their script, as it explores the same themes as most other animated films that are primarily aimed at children, and plods along the predictable plot path you can see coming from miles away.

Even its esteemed cast are unable to bring much gravitas or presence to their characters. Gyllenhaal and Moore are anonymous, although Merced brings the required emotion and drives Spirit Untamed along. It is Goggins who comes the closest to excelling, especially as the look of his villain syncs up perfectly with his exuberant, slightly over the top, but still undeniably captivating vocal efforts.

The characters of Lucky, Pru and Abigail make for an engaging trio. Dreamworks Animation/Universal Pictures

Spirit Untamed has a few other positives, too. Elaine Bogan, making her feature film directorial debut, manages to make the film better than the sum of its underwhelming parts. She brings an energy and pace to the story and finds various inventive shots that immediately get the emotions and mindsets of the characters across. Most impressively, she also manages to make the film surprisingly humorous, too.

It’s also refreshing to see a female-driven story set in the Wild West. Bogan, Wallington and Hahn are able to use this setting and backdrop to deliver several moments that children will find heartening and inspiring. That’s particularly true of the scenes with Lucky, Pru and Abigail, who make for an engaging trio. It’s just a shame that we don’t get to see more of them together.

Ultimately though, despite Bogan’s best efforts, Spirit Untamed can’t help but come across as lightweight.

After the last 25 years of animation excellence from the likes of Pixar, Disney and Warner Bros, audiences of all ages now want a much more layered, evocative and emotional experience when they watch a film from the genre.

Merely being something that parents can put on to entertain their children is no longer enough. Spirit Untamed should just about keep its younger viewers occupied for 87 minutes. Adults, on the other hand, will no doubt find it too cheesy and formulaic to invest in.

Spirit Untamed is in UAE cinemas from Thursday

Updated: August 05, 2021, 3:46 AM