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'Spirit Untamed' Director Elaine Bogan Triumphs with First Feature Film

Kimberly Carr


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Spirit Untamedthe newest DreamWorks animated feature, is a spirited adventure that will leave you cheering for the horses and their heroines. It is the latest chapter in the Spirit series, which first launched in the 2002 traditionally animated film Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, and includes books and the television show “Spirit Riding Free.”

As the action begins in Spirit Untamed, even before the title screen appears, viewers are swept into the story with a triumphant anthem which sets the musical stage for the rest of the film. Choral voices and thundering rhythms match the gallop of the horses’ hooves as Spirit and Lucky (Isabela Merced), along with friends Pru (Marsai Martin) and Abigail (Mckenna Grace) find their lives entwined on an adventure.  The innocence of their friendship circle stands out as a refreshing story element among a field of children’s movies which have muddled the meaning of childhood friendships.

While Spirit Untamed will not likely reach the eshelons of a "Frozen" -type tale, the vocal talents and animation are polished and enjoyable (the song "Join Up" is still running through my head). And though there are no specific faith references in the story, I found myself drawing comparisons to my own Christian faith when the trio of friends, along with their horses, face a challenge at the top of a mountain. The Ridge of Regret and Heck Mountain are the physical obstacles which represent young Lucky’s journey of discovery and acceptance of her true self.

Carrying such a beloved legacy rests on the shoulders of Elaine Bogan, a veteran DreamWorks Animation storyboard artist and director. Spirit Untamed is her first feature film and she seemingly seamlessly guided the project through a pandemic.

I spoke with Elaine about the film recently, and started by telling her that although it is geared towards kids, I couldn’t wait to tell my girlfriends about it. An inspiring tale for young women, it turns out that was one of the production team’s main goals.

“Oh my gosh. I feel like one of the most exciting things to me when I first heard about the project and potentially becoming involved was that it was a story that had three female leads and they were all heroes and they were all lifting each other up instead of pitted against each other, trying to compete to get there first. To me, that feels real because I still hang out with the same group of girlfriends I met in first grade. It feels like something authentic and something we don't see enough on screen.”

Every character in the film, from the kids to the adults, were written with a great deal of respect. I have noticed in many movies geared toward children that the parents are portrayed as neglectful or even stupid. But the adults in this story are just trying their best while coping with some tough life events. As Lucky arrives in Miradero to see her dad who was compelled to send her to live with family after a tragedy years earlier, they do not shy away from the complexities of the situation and instead tell it with honesty and thoughtfulness.

 “That was a big goal for us with every character in the film, that we made as real and as authentic as we could with the emotion, because, you know, we were dealing with some pretty heavy stuff in this movie and it was important to us that we spoke to a young audience and made that feel okay. We know that a young audience, a lot of them may be going through similar things and to see yourself up on screen, achieving incredible things, though sometimes you may make mistakes, you may fail, but you can rely on the love and support around you to get wherever you need to go. That was a beautiful part of the story for me.”

Elaine has an extensive background in horsemanship, and even her own horse Ziggy Stardust features in the film through Lucky and Spirit’s relationship.

“I literally got the first phone call that invited me into this project when I was sitting in the parking lot of the equestrian center after having taken care of my horse for the night. So the timing of everything happening at the time felt perfect. The story about a strong young woman going through some serious challenges in order to realize what she's capable of, and me taking on my first feature film, directing role – everything was falling into place and felt like it was what I was supposed to be doing.

“It's a blast for me to be able to tell all of these weird stories about things that happened to me on a daily basis that a normal person would be like, ‘Whoa!’

“My favorite part that I got to infuse into the movie is the scene where Lucky gets her face snorted in by spirit and just kind of blows her hair back, but she just laughed it off because I mean, that's a part of my daily life, unfortunately, but not, unfortunately, because it just tickles me. He's, he's a giant goofball and just full of personality that I was able to really be inspired by for every horse in the film.”

Directing an animated feature involves guiding actors as they perform their roles alone in a recording booth, and Elaine faced yet another layer of difficulty during this process.

“On this project in particular, the biggest frustration was not being able to be there in the room, collaborating in person with a one-on-one environment. I mean, halfway through our project, we were all sent home to make a movie from our living rooms.

“It was an interesting challenge to work through, but we lucked out with this incredible cast of actors and actresses who were already so great at what they do. They kind of just came in, collaborated, brought their own ideas and their own personalities and their own fun to the characters. And we got to sit and watch these characters evolve into something that just felt believable and authentic because it, a lot of that input was coming from the people playing the roles. It ended up being one of my favorite aspects of the final film. You can really feel Jake [Gyllenhall] and Julianne [Moore] in those characters and Isabella [Merced], Marsai [Martin], McKenna [Grace] – pieces of their personality are right there.”

Elaine’s hope is that Spirit Untamed will delight dedicated Spirit fans and reach new viewers as well.

“A big challenge of ours was to both create a story that would be exciting and big enough to bring new audience members in. But we also had the challenge of making sure that we honored and respected the fans of the existing first movie and the TV series. And that's no small task, but I can only hope that, we brought in Aury Wallington to write our draft for us. And she created the TV series herself, and I hope that we've at least stayed close enough to the same Spirit world everyone knows and loves, but have provided something exciting and new.”

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