Spirit Untamed

I'm not entirely sure why Spirit Untamed exists. This CGI-animated feature, aimed at very young children, is a pseudo-sequel to Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, a relatively sophisticated hand-drawn animated feature from way back in 2002 – long before the target audience was born. At the same time, it's also a spinoff of Spirit Riding Free, a Netflix series that tells a variation on the same story. With little to connect it to the original (aside from the titular horse) and seemingly little to distinguish it from the TV show, there doesn't seem to be an obvious need for this movie. Nevertheless, it's a pleasant little film that has real charm.

Lucky Prescott (voiced by Isabela Merced) is a young girl whose mom was a trick rider in the circus. After she passed in a tragic accident, dad Jim (Jake Gyllenhaal) fell apart, abandoning Lucky. Now, years later, his sister Cora (Julianne Moore) is reuniting them. Things don't entirely go smoothly. Fortunately for her, Lucky befriends a wild mustang that a no-good rustler named Hendricks (Walton Goggins) has been mistreating. She eventually liberates the animal, and they go on an adventure to free other horses Hendricks and his men are planning to “break” and then sell to the highest bidder.

Early scenes in Spirit Untamed are not promising. The plot is slow to ramp up, and for a while, it seems like the movie is going to be nothing more than a girl cooing over a horse. Once Lucky and her new friends Abigail (Mckenna Grace) and Pru (Marsai Martin) set out to defeat Hendricks, the pace picks up considerably. The story is about finding your bravery in life. Spirit shows Lucky how to face adversity, and she, in turn, role models it for her pals. Perhaps the best scene finds them delicately traversing a very narrow ridge, taking it a step at a time. That's a metaphor for the message being sent to kids – sometimes you have to do things you find scary, but taking it slow and steady can help you push through fear.

Tension between Lucky and Jim ramps up as the picture goes on, as well. Anyone over the age of ten will see where the story is going long before it gets there. That still doesn't negate the touching way Spirit Untamed handles it. Having walked away from Lucky in the past, Jim is now reluctant to do anything that might separate them again, especially if that happens via a riding accident like the one his late wife had. His daughter's newfound bravery therefore brings out his parental instinct to be protective. She, however, neither wants nor needs his protection, because she's tapping into a strength that's been in there all along yet hadn't been accessible. This dynamic leads to a sweet resolution that reminds kids how important it is to love and be loved.

The animation here is quite pretty, particularly in the scenes involving the wide open spaces around the frontier town where the story takes place. A warm visual style makes the journey Lucky and Spirit go on come alive. In spite of that and several additional positive qualities, Spirit Untamed isn't anywhere near being Pixar-level good. It lacks the storytelling richness and visual innovation the best animated features have. The movie is meant for kids nine and under, though, and if you're a parent, it's something you can feel good taking them to.

out of four

Spirit Untamed is rated PG for some adventure action. The running time is 1 hour and 27 minutes.