If you’ve seen the trailers, posters, or billboards for Spirited, let’s see if your first impression synchs with mine: At first glance, this movie looks like concentrated donkey doo. It’s another twist on A Christmas Carol, which the world needs like a ski boot to the Nutter Butters. Even more egregious, this modern take stars Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell, who have as much business in a musical as Michael Jordan did on the White Sox. And, to keep the baseball metaphors coming, neither actor has hit anything out of the park in a while. If you had doubts about Spirited, then we were of the same mind, and I’m usually right. 🤪
Well, let me whisper a secret in your ear, and never mind if I smell like bourbon: Spirited attempts to satirize Christmas movie tropes, whilst also serving up the same caramel-coated parables we’ve come to expect from the genre. You want to hear something cuh-razy? It actually does pretty well on both fronts.
Spirited reconfigures Dickens for a modern world that feels cute, but might delete later. Basically, those ghosts of Christmas Past (Sunita Mani), Present (Will Ferrell), and Future (voice of Tracy Morgan) are all part of a supernatural media conglomerate that scares the bejesus out of HOA Karens and snarky hotel managers. They function as a troop of actors from a magical community theater, replete with CGI sets and elaborate musical numbers. (St. Peter is more akin to Busby Berkeley than we’ve ever suspected.)
Ferrell’s Christmas Present functions as the de facto face of the company. He rallies colleagues behind the scenes and handpicks coal-black souls for scared-straight reformation. Turns out, Present has worked for the company for centuries, despite the fact his service entitles him to a new shot at life. Jacob Marley (Patrick Page), Present’s starchy boss, suspects that his protege might be afraid to rejoin the real world. Naturally, we learn that GCP harbors an incredible secret.
This Christmas, Present picks the project to end them all: An unredeemable soul. Clint Briggs (Ryan Reynolds), a fast-talking media consultant with a skill at brewing scandals and ruining online reputations. He has a quick smile, and greets his social carnage with an easy shrug. Present’s colleagues try to shoo him away from such a horrific prospect: Clint is too clever, too self-absorbed, and too far gone for their shenanigans to provoke a Scrooge-style redemption. He’ll only ruin their perfect stats! Still, Present is adamant. If there’s hope for such a lost soul, anyone can be saved.
All that plot is really an excuse to stitch together a series of brawny musical numbers. The songs (by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) are decent, if unmemorable. Director Sean Anders stages everything with an eye for grandeur–big sets, lots of dancers, and a million strobing lights. Spirited may not be completely successful, but it’s never from a lack of trying. In fact, it’s biggest sin might be how big it wants to be.
Put another way, Spirited is a lively 100 minutes spread over a saggy two-plus hours. Anders and co-writer John Morris carve out too much time for too many characters, subplots, and tacked-on endings. Get ready to spend the third act checking your watch like you’re watching that stretch of hobbit pillow fights in Return of the King. For a movie that needed to nail everything, Spirited spends a lot of time driving in the weeds.
For all its flaws, the movie’s cast acquits itself surprisingly well. Nobody’s gonna cast Ferrell and Reynolds in South Pacific anytime soon, but they bring a relaxed charm to their performances. Both actors are having a lot of fun, and it shows. That also goes for Octavia Spencer, as Briggs’ ethically stressed assistant. I also love the genius casting of Morgan as Death, so much so that the film could’ve riffed a little more with his role. On that front, Spirited chucks in a few fun cameos, including one genuine national treasure.
Add all that up, and you get a film that’s way better than I anticipated. At the same time, I can’t quite recommend it. You probably won’t love Spirited, but it also won’t make you want to pull your flatscreen off the wall and throw it into the street. That might be damning it with faint praise, but I’m honestly too drunk to be sure. Merry Christmas, everybody!
127 min. PG. Apple TV+.