The more I think about it, films specifically aimed at children can be useful tools sometimes, but not in any way related to the idea of providing the youngest audiences with entertainment. Movies like Spirit Untamed are a great litmus test to find out which film critics are worth reading and engaging with, and which ones clearly have no idea what they’re doing.
A quick glance at Rotten Tomatoes and Letterboxd (and Twitter if you prefer your information unfiltered and delivered via a high-pressure hose) will immediately let you know where the consensus about this movie is. Let’s just say Spirit Untamed wasn’t well received at all. The fun part begins when you read into the reasons why so many critics, influencers and reviewers (and I think at some point this distinction will need to be set in stone because these are wildly different types of people) didn’t respond well to this movie, which is supposed to function as a soft reboot of a film that is old enough for the kids who watched it to have kids of their own. Some would offer their own impressions, maybe criticize the film’s flaws, but they would still circle back to underscore this is a movie for children, which – believe it or not – is crucial to the primary job of a film critic, which is to recommend films to people. So, there’s a good handful of critics out there who, while still able to express their own opinions, were aware of the fact they are not the target demographic for it and that kids will likely love it anyway.
And then there’s the other kind of folks: those who for some bizarre reason waltzed into Spirit Untamed (or maybe received a screener from Dreamworks, I don’t know…) and failed to adjust their frequencies and then proceeded to vent furiously about how the comedy in the film is infantile (!!!), how the characterizations are bland, how the story is not engaging enough, and that hearing Jake Gyllenhaal’s voice (who plays the dad of the main character, Lucky, herself voiced by Isabela Merced) is not enough to make the experience of watching this movie any less insufferable. It’s honestly hilarious to read how so many people, most of whom I assume are grown-ass adults, simply fail to acknowledge that some movies are not made for them.
I suppose big studios like Pixar, Disney and Dreamworks are at least partially to blame as over the last twenty years they have contributed to creating a trend where animated movies would also attempt to entertain the adult trapped in the cinema together with their children, to whom these movies are allegedly addressed. Thus, from Shrek onwards it slowly became customary and eventually expected that alongside a typically pared-down plot and a set of characters that are basic enough for kids to navigate and identify with, animated movies that were originally intended for children all of a sudden became vehicles for adults to pore over and identify with. I mean, don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing wrong with films aimed at the entire spectrum of general audiences and some, like Soul, Up, or Luca are engineered first with the adult in mind. However, some – some! – kids movies should remain just that – simple, colourful, fun and easy to digest. A basic story about a girl finding herself and learning a thing or two about life from a horse is not Apocalypse Now and nobody should ever expect it to be anything more than a piece of entertainment for children. Some kids’ movies naturally are better than others and this is what I think a review should highlight.
In fact, I would honestly expect a film critic who knows their worth to tailor their review towards the parent because they would be the ones engaging with their recommendation. Spirit Untamed is never going to change the fabric of our culture and it is abundantly clear after sitting with this movie for fifteen minutes. It’s important to highlight the values the movie is attempting to instil in the young impressionable mind, maybe highlight its diversity, intensity of the action etc. While it’s fun to imagine that Paw Patrol: The Movie fits as a piece of social commentary on our times, it is ultimately irrelevant to a primary review. And it’s completely inappropriate to fire negative comments one after another when a film about a girl and her horse doesn’t have anything interesting to say that an adult could enjoy. It doesn’t have to.
Ironically enough, the very same people who write these snarky haikus about kids’ movies not entertaining them one bit, because – naturally! – any Dreamworks animation should aspire to be seen as The Godfather, are perfectly capable of applying similar filters when it comes to Marvel movies and related ilk. After all, most reviews for comic book movies are written in such a way that you’d convince yourself nothing exists outside their little comic book movie bubble. They are compared, ranked and reviewed exclusively within the parameters of their genre and against their direct peers. So, even venturing out to see how they fare against other mainstream blockbusters is met with booing and jeering. And out of the two cases, comic book movies could aspire to do something more because they are not geared towards eight-year-olds, but young adults and (let’s not kid ourselves) forty-year-old man-children with enough Funko Pops in their bedrooms to dissuade anyone from starting a romantic relationship with them.
I am all for reviewing horror films against their genre and talking about Star Wars in the context of its own legacy, but at least we should be able to agree that it is possible – and encouraged – for anyone who sees themselves as a film critic to see the fundamental distinction between adults, who can watch anything they like, and children, whose cinematic experiences need to be curated to aid their development. I can’t sit an eight-year-old girl down and show her A Clockwork Orange, nor should I expect her to get the thematic nuance and socio-political undertones hidden within Raya and the Last Dragon. Kids see the world differently and gravitate to things you and I might simply overlook. And very often they don’t even know quite well why they like the movies they like because they interface with the world in extremely visceral way.
Therefore, scrolling through reviews of Spirit Untamed can quickly sieve out people who see themselves as critics but are merely pound-shop influencers who don’t understand they do not have a responsibility towards the film they are dispensing opinion on, but to their reader/viewer/listener. And they should damn well be able to figure out that movies about horses and friendship are probably made with children in mind.
And for the record, Spirit Untamed is fine. My daughter absolutely loved it and I can assure you that any girl who loves horses (and many do) will have a great time. The same extends to girls who love unicorns. After all, a horse is 99% unicorn already, so that’s that. The movie is colourful, diverse, easy on the uptake, doesn’t overstay its welcome and it knows there are limits to the intensity of action little kids can endure, which should easily inform you that you can safely show it to very young children and they will have a great time. Granted, as a parent you won’t learn too much nor will you find anything you can safely latch onto, because the story and its thematic makeup are cosy and archetypal. But it doesn’t matter. Your kid will love it and you’ll emerge from the cinema satisfied enough because seeing them have a lot of fun is rewarding in its own right.