I have a very hard a fast rule that I don’t celebrate or do anything Christmas until Dec 1st. Sorry, but I’m simply not the guy who celebrates Christmas on November 1st and starts putting up lights 72 days early. So a November 11th release date of “Spirited,” a musical reimagining of “A Christmas Carol” was met with raised eyebrows and set aside until the time was right. Well, my tree is up, my garland lays across my entertainment center, and the majority of gifts have been wrapped and placed under the tree. So it was the perfect time to dig into “Spirited” and get myself into the Christmas Spirit. Packed with heart, laughs, and pretty decent musical numbers, the Apple TV+ film is sure to be an inclusion into many a Christmas tradition watchlists. In addition, it largely succeeds in being a true unique retelling of a mostly tired tale, with its twists and spins on the original being approached with measured care and a sense of reverence for its source material.
Directed by Sean Anders (“Daddy’s Home” franchise, “Hot Tub Time Machine” writer) and co-written by John Morris (“We’re the Millers“) “Spirited” is a unique retelling of “A Christmas Carol.” It begins by taking us behind the scenes of the ghosts that haunt people to change, who spend their days selecting grumpies and Karens (yes, really) and haunting them before Christmas to be better people. Run like a full on corporation, The Ghost of Christmas Present (Will Ferrell) has been up for retirement for decades, unable to take his reward to live his days as a human and getting a second chance at life. He wants to help continue to enact change and use his ghost life for good. While on a research mission for their next project, he stumbles across Clint Briggs (Ryan Reynolds), a controversial media consultant whom Present believes is an “unredeemable.” Feeling a connection with this new target due to his own past, Present convinces his superiors to let him try to work the impossible and change the unchangeable, believing his ripple effect will have huge impact for the good of humanity. Of course, nothing goes as planned, as Clint turns out to be much more than any of them bargained for and will have a profound effect on both the haunted and haunters.
It’s no secret that both Ferrell and Reynolds are acquired tastes, and both of their comedic personas don’t necessarily resonate with everyone. Surprisingly, “Spirited” manages to taper back both of them without ever diminishing their talents or performances. This is a much more subdued performance from Ferrell in particular, restraining him to the likability of the character written instead of letting him run wild with his own interpretation. Don’t get me wrong, this is still very much a Ferrell outing. It just isn’t as over the top and grating as many of the other films that tend to turn people off. “Spirited” smartly uses its stars in a more subtle approach, letting both inject their comedic timing into their scenes without overdoing it. Reynolds is also far less “Deadpool” than he has been in recent years, demonstrating that he can be used differently and doesn’t always have to be a Merc with a mouth. Again, he’s still Reynolds, and if neither of these two do anything for you then “Spirited” won’t necessarily change your mind. But the balance helps to sell the story more than you would expect, choosing heart and purpose over an edited string of improvisations.
There is a sense that “Spirited” would work better if the roles were reversed from the start, with Reynolds being Present and Ferrell being the Scrooge from the get go. While Briggs isn’t meant to be the outright despicable, money hungry, wealthy elite, Reynolds is a bit too charming for his own good. He’s too likable even when he’s not supposed to be, and I feel like Ferrell is a better choice to channel that character to show true character growth. However, “Spirited” isn’t really about change overnight. It borrows the idea of change from its source material to enact little changes instead of changing everything you are. It also updates that kind of “Scrooge” like persona for the modern age, adding in layers of social media and marketing spins that are rather prevalent today. “Spirited” even tackles the faux war on Christmas, through song of course so as not to be too blunt in their satire. The supporting cast is solid as well, with Octavia Spencer, Sunita Mani, and Patrick Page all dialed in to the assignment and fully committed even when they aren’t give too much to do.
For the musical aspect, “Spirited” is very much in the vein of the writing styles of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who’s work includes “Dear Evan Hansen,” “The Greatest Showman,” and “La La Land.” I don’t know that the music is melodically memorable enough to be stuck in your head for the rest of the holiday season, but it’s rather catchy in the moment and screams Pasek and Paul in just about every aspect. Even if you didn’t know it was them behind the music, the familiarity is enough to prompt to you guess and more than likely be right when you Google check yourself. And you do kind of have to hand it P&P. They’re able to write catchy enough tunes that even people who can’t sing are able to perform them in such a way that makes you think that they can. Reynolds and Ferrell are no Kidman and McGregor from “Moulin Rouge,” but their vocal shortcomings are easily overlooked for tunes that stick to their limited capabilities.
Where “Spirited” loses its way is in its length. Like just about every movie this year over 90 minutes, the film suffers from being far too overstuffed to be fully focused, losing its way towards the third act and feeling like Anders wasn’t quite sure how he wanted it all to come together. The need to reimagine every single aspect of its source material wears thin to the point of almost exhaustion, and doesn’t quite feel as satisfying as “Spirited” intended. There’s a good 30 minutes that could be left on the cutting room floor, and some subplots that never quite feel as rewarding as they should. These things really hold “Spirited” back from being truly great. At its core, it is packed with emotional resonance that delivers the perfect dose of the holiday spirit, and many of the classic twists come close to making it one of the better iterations of a tired story. We don’t need ANOTHER “Christmas Carol,” but “Spirited” is just unique and smart enough to warrant its existence, and only suffers from trying to do too much at once and would be better served to tighten itself up a bit.
“Spirited” is good old fashioned Christmas fun, delivering laughs, musical numbers and a heartfelt story that is sure to be enjoyed by most. If you’re in the mood for something familiar done new, then “Spirited” is a good place to start. I can be pretty Scrooge sometimes, and “Spirited” did just enough right to melt my cold, callus, bahumbug heart.
Good afternoon to you, I say! Good afternoon indeed!
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
“Spirited” is now streaming on AppleTV+. You can watch the trailer below.