Nothing on paper hinted that I would walk out of Spirited with a smile on my face and a spring in my step. Barring his work in the Deadpool films, I’ve been allergic to Ryan Reynolds's one-note wise-cracking performances, breaking out in severe hives with last year’s Free Guy and Red Notice. Will Ferrell has been on a downward spiral, releasing nothing above passable for years (not counting voice-over work in The Lego Movie). And the greatest claim to fame writer/director duo Sean Anders and John Morris have is the Daddy’s Home films and the unneeded Horrible Bosses 2. Yet, with all those warning signs and the potential for some serious damage, Spirited was able to lift my holiday spirits (pun fully intended) by being a wholly entertaining comedy musical.
A reimagining of Charles Dickens's classic story, Spirited opens with the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future performing their annual haunting on a less-than-stellar person. This past year's target was a woman named Karen (one of several attempts at internet culture humor, this one being the most successful), who became a nicer person to her neighbors. Present (Ferrell) feels that the recent haunts haven’t made a big enough difference. He wants the next “perp” to be someone whose change would have a huge ripple effect across other people’s lives.
Showing up at the perfect moment is Clint Briggs (Reynolds), founder and CEO of his own media manipulation agency. He creates what you call non-troverseys: unimportant and trivial internet wars that stir up attention for whatever side is paying him (he’s probably the one behind the black/blue & white/yellow dress debate, which saw sales of it go up nearly 400%). Unfortunately for Present, Clint has been labeled an “unredeemable,” meaning that no amount of haunting could turn him into a nice person. But Present’s Christmas optimism doesn’t allow him to quit easily, so the haunt is on in hopes of turning this self-centered jerk into a decent human being.
The world doesn’t need another adaptation of A Christmas Carol (does anyone remember the 2019 miniseries or The Man Who Invented Christmas?), a fact that Anders and Morris acknowledge through their screenplay. Instead of following the tried and true path of three ghosts fully changing a mortal soul, Spirited is more of a two-hander about how people can’t suddenly change for the better, and instead, they need to focus on incremental improvements from within. It’s a surprisingly nuanced message, one that’s hard to fully take seriously coming out of the mouths of Reynolds and Ferrell, who are still doing their usual schtick.
The central pair do have great chemistry together, which is fully harnessed by choreographer Chloe Arnold, the unseen MVP of the film. Treating the dance numbers as if they were done for a stage audience, Arnold compiles huge swaths of backup dancers for big chorus numbers, with Reynolds and Ferrell front and center tap dancing away. Ferrell solidifies his comedic music chops from Eurovision, and Reynolds aptly brings his game. There’s also the added bonus of Octavia Spencer being a nice romantic fold for Ferrell. It is unfortunate that the horrendous CGI backgrounds often distract from the capable work being done.
The songwriting duo of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul - who’ve penned works from La La Land, Dear Evan Hansen, and The Greatest Showman - unleash a whole new album's worth of holiday tunes. There aren’t too many distinguishing features between many of the songs, but their sameness doesn’t take away from their catchiness.
Spirited will probably never become a holiday classic due to its anonymous release on Apple TV+, not that it really deserves to become one anyway. But I was entertained throughout its slightly bloated two-hour runtime and thought to myself how I should be a better person. And for that, it deserves some yuletide cheer.