Synopsis: Each Christmas Eve, the Ghost of Christmas Present selects one dark soul to be reformed by a visit from three spirits. But this season, he picked the wrong Scrooge.
Stars: Will Ferrell, Ryan Reynolds, Octavia Spencer, Sunita Mani, Patrick Page, Tracy Morgan, Joe Tippett, Andrea Anders, Jen Tullock
Director: Sean Anders
Running Length: 127 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: Before we journey through this Spirited review, I feel I must be transparent about a few things off the bat. That will help better frame how I came to this new musical re-telling of A Christmas Carol, one of the multitudes of versions of the Charles Dickens perennial classic. I love A Christmas Carol. I will watch a performance (or versions) of it every year and be struck by something new about the piece each time I see it. There’s a lesson to be learned from Dickens’s story of redemption, and my opinion is that the darker, the better. Let the story start from a deep, despairing place because the renewal of salvation Scrooge experiences at the end means much more; the takeaway is more impactful.
The next thing I’ll say is that I’m not generally a fan of either star of the film, Will Ferrell or Ryan Reynolds. Both actors trade in schtick, and while it has made them a boatload of money, it’s a schtick that’s beaten to death and quoted by those less talented on the delivery forever after. (“No really, I don’t need to hear that Anchorman bit again Kevin. Thank you.”) Each has occasionally struck out with work that has shown their acting chops, but to say they are comfortable with coasting along is putting it mildly. I also am not the biggest fan of Dear Evan Hansen, the multiple award-winning musical Spirited songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul composed for Broadway and helped adapt for the bomb-tastic 2021 musical. It even took me a second viewing to appreciate their Oscar-winning songwriting for 2017’s The Greatest Showman.
There was the dilemma I faced when Spirited was staring me down the other night. Dickens=good. Ferrell/Reynolds=iffy. Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer (The Shape of Water) being third billed tipped the scale in the right direction, and I committed to at least starting the movie but not finishing it at that late hour. It’s rare in our house not to pause for a bathroom break or other distraction, but after the two hours was up and Spirited’s charming closing credit sequence was complete, my only regret wasn’t staying up past my bedtime but that I wasn’t able to see this joyous holiday entertainment on the biggest screen possible. (It’s in limited release now but widely available on AppleTV+ on November 18.)
Written by John Morris and director Sean Anders (Daddy’s Home), Spirited takes the story we’re all familiar with (A Christmas Carol) and gives it a modern twist. Scrooge gets redeemed on his Christmas Eve night, but what about the next Christmas? And the one after that? And the one after that? The “haunt “business is a well-oiled machine and by the time we join the crew, Marley (Patrick Page, In the Heights) is running a tight ship. The Ghosts of Christmas Past (Sunita Mani, Evil Eye), Present (Ferrell, Holmes & Watson), and Yet-To-Come (voiced by Tracy Morgan, The Boxtrolls, and physicalized by Loren Woods) get in, do their job, and pass their torch to the next on the schedule.
They’ve just completed their latest mission (a Karen-esque suburbanite played by a recognizable star), and are planning their next when Present suddenly turns his focus to Clint Briggs (Reynolds, Deadpool), a smarmy public relations exec that can spin any story (illustrated by Reynolds in a go-for-broke 11 o’clock musical number that comes around the 9:00 am mark). The only problem is Clint is classified as ‘Unredeemable’ and automatically excluded from the yearly haunt – but Present sees a challenge and, facing retirement, pushes Marley to take on Clint despite the warnings that their efforts will fail. Of course, they can’t know that Clint truly is as nasty as he looks and isn’t as easily rattled as the centuries of souls that came before him.
The screenplay (and songs) takes some unexpected turns, sometimes following the Dickens text but diverging enough, so you’re never sure where you’ll find yourself at given beats. That’s nice to find, especially for the experienced fans of A Christmas Carol, but also for those willing to let Ferrell and Reynolds try on a new side of themselves. Both are nicely musical and dance well, culminating in several smashing full-out dance numbers set to Pasek/Paul’s lively tunes and performed with dazzling choreography by Chloe Arnold. Sure, they start to sound the same after a while, and you won’t be turning the TV off humming them, but they’re clever and fun while you’re in it, and the old time pub song ‘Good Afternoon’ is a showstopping riot.
If the film drags its feet a little, it’s when we go down the rabbit hole of Clint’s past. That’s where we find good actors like Joe Tippett (Mr. Harrigan’s Phone), Andrea Anders (The Stepford Wives), & Jen Tullock (TV’s Severance) struggling with some saccharine dialogue (or, in Anders’s case, several bizarrely ugly wigs). So much effort is spent on the production numbers looking great, I wish more time were spent on the dramatic scenes being as tight. At least Spencer’s scenes are razor-sharp, and if you had seeing Spencer in a musical on your Christmas wish list, you could check that off now because she’s lovely in her few moments of musicality. Spencer is the epitome of the heart that Spirited is going for, so anytime she’s on screen, she has a way of centering everyone in the film.
There’s so little to offend here; I’d encourage you to block out the early negative buzz from some ‘unredeemable’ Scrooge-y critics who can’t see what the film is going for and ultimately achieves. It shows us a new way of approaching a story while at the same time illustrating the flaws we all examine in ourselves. The flaws can define us and make us embittered against the world, or we can take ownership of them and use them toward doing good. The message is clear, and sometimes, in the case of Spirited, it’s sung. This will be added to the holiday rotation in my home, no question.