The first look at Netflix’s Original Series Spirit Riding Free came courtesy of the animated show’s first trailer just this past week. And to be quite honest, it did not sell me on this new series, one that’s inspired by DreamWorks Animation’s Oscar-nominated 2002 feature, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. At first blush, it looks like a knock-off of Spirit that does away with the film’s message promoting freedom and individuality, while taming the wild heart that made Spirit such a beloved character. This is why it’s important to actually watch a series, because sometimes the trailers fall short.
Spirit Riding Free keeps the … well, spirit of the film intact, but in quite different ways. The focus this time around isn’t on the horse himself but rather the newly arrived 12-year-old Lucky Prescott, who soon makes new friends in the Wild West town, including that of the spirited stallion. This is less a series about social commentary and more of a “girl and her horse” story, complete with real, complicated friendships and life lessons learned in a refreshingly sincere manner. Spirit Riding Free knows its audience and, in giving its characters agency, does the same for its viewers.
It’s worth revisiting the story of Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron before getting into Spirit Riding Free. In the movie, which really only bears the title stallion in common with the series, Spirit is a wild mustang whose wild, headstrong nature keeps him from being tamed by ruthless cavalry troopers who are expanding ever westward. Spirit and his fellow mustangs also stand in for Native American populations who were decimated by that expansion, though there’s a hopeful (if schmaltzy and unrealistic) ending that sees the cavalry reaching an accord with Spirit and his Native American pals.
Spirit Riding Free tames that message a bit by focusing on Lucky, a 12-year-old city girl who finds herself in a (very clean and tidy) Wild West town without a friend in the world. Spirit is introduced in short order and it’s apparent that he has maintained this wild streak; a pair of bronco busters try their best to break him but to no avail. You might have guessed that Lucky is the only one who’s able to ride Spirit, which makes perfect sense considering this show’s target audience but also with regard to Lucky’s background. While her father, the very wealthy and down-to-Earth adventurer/railroad baron Jim Prescott, and her stuffy Aunt Cora (who are both very Nordic-looking) currently act as her parental guardians, her mother, Milagros Navarro, was a very talented rider and showwoman.
Lucky’s mixed-race parentage isn’t a plot point at all, at least not in the early goings. The lead cast also includes an African American father/daughter pairing alongside White characters, but the early story focuses more on the class divide than anything else. The snooty mayor’s daughter looks down on the other kids in school but is excited to meet Lucky, hoping she’ll help to class up the joint. Viewers will quickly learn just what sort of person Lucky is through this introduction.
Spirit Riding Free is more concerned with offering a strong sense of adventure in each episode while peppering in some practical life lessons for kids rather than dipping into more mature social commentary. This is a wise decision. Whether it’s in Lucky learning how to make friends, how to own up to her mistakes, how to patch up a disagreement, or how to conquer her horse-riding fears, Spirit Riding Free does quite well in service to its audience when providing adventure alongside PSAs.
There are a couple of knocks against Spirit Riding Free, however. Spirit, the stallion, maintains an edge and a stubborn streak, but he’s far more malleable than his feature film counterpart. That’s fine and it works for the series, as long as viewers aren’t expecting him to remain completely wild throughout. Also, the animation is a bit rough at times; the design of the landscape and environment is beautiful but lacks detail, horseriding scenes are much smoother than characters running or even walking on their own, and characters’ expressions flirt with the creepier realms of the Uncanny Valley from time to time. However, the serviceable animation can be overlooked thanks to the solid, earnest friendships among Lucky, her pals, and their trio of horses. Spirit Riding Free is an adventurous, kid-friendly series that will take young audiences along for a wild ride where they might even learn something along the way.
Rating: ★★★ Good
From executive producer Aury Wallington and co-executive producer Jim Schumann with cast members Amber Frank, Sydney Park, Bailey Gambertoglio, Darcy Rose Byrnes, Nolan North, and Kari Wahlgren, Spirit Riding Free rides onto Netflix on May 5th.