The devil works in public relations in “ Spirited,” a new spin on “A Christmas Carol” starring Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds. With songs by “The Greatest Showman” duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, big ensemble dance numbers choreographed by Chloe Arnold and special effects galore, “Spirited” it is a maximalist affair that spares no expense in its heart-on-sleeve efforts to entertain. The sincerity isn’t necessarily a bad thing: If you’re going to make a holiday-themed musical on Apple’s dime, you might as well go all out, right?
You’d also think that if you’re going to make a big movie musical, a genre that it seems every top filmmaker dreams of getting a chance to do, that you wouldn’t feel the need to have someone make a joke about it every time another character is about to burst into song. But that is the paradox of “Spirited,” which wants to be everything to everyone. The most egregious sin, though, is the fact that no one seems entirely sure of how to shoot a big, choreographed dance number effectively. At times, it feels like you’re watching a live show that wasn’t rehearsed with camera movements and cuts beforehand, doing a disservice to the songs, the dancers and sets.
And yet, though “Spirited” comes up short as a musical, it is still pretty enjoyable. Perhaps that’s because it is just so stuffed with everything else: If one part doesn’t totally work, there’s plenty else in the four-quadrant buffet to sample. In addition to the committed leads, there are comedy gems from Christmas Past (Sunita Mani), Christmas Yet-to-Come (Loren Woods with Tracy Morgan’s voice), Pasek and Paul’s easily digestible pop ballads and Octavia Spencer’s lovely singing voice.
Ferrell has already written his Christmas movie legacy with “Elf,” which is somehow turning 20 next year. Others might have cashed in after a holiday home run like that, but Ferrell seems to have exercised some discernment before jumping into another seasonal romp. Then Sean Anders, who directed him in “Daddy’s Home” and its sequel, came to him with this idea to re-imagine “A Christmas Carol” from the ghosts’ point of view. He would be the Ghost of Christmas Present, who is one part of a big operation that every year finds Scrooge-y humans to change with their hauntings. “Present” as he’s called, is long due for a retirement which the company’s HR department tries to remind him. (It’s just used for a joke, but it is also a crushingly depressing idea that this heavenly operation for good has HR at all).
But Present still doesn’t feel like his work is done and he sets his sights on Reynolds’ Clint Briggs, a media consultant who has made a fortune peddling hate, controversy, misinformation and outrage for his clients, who range from pop stars and presidents to the National Association of Christmas Tree Growers. We meet him presenting to this latter group in a song-and-dance about bringing back Christmas that’s part Professor Harold Hill singing “Ya Got Trouble,” part Chicago’s Billy Flynn talking about how they both reached for the gun. Reynolds does a good job, too, though he is more of the Rex Harrison “talk on key” school than a classical Broadway guy like his friendly foe Hugh Jackman.
Clint is going to be a tough case for Present, though, as an “unredeemable.” Because this movie is constantly apologizing for itself, Broadway veteran Patrick Page, as Jacob Marley, while explaining to Clint what’s about to happen says that, yes, it’s “Like the Dickens book, the Bill Murray movie and every other adaptation no one asked for.” But they try anyway with Ferrell playing the wide-eyed innocent to Reynolds’ smarmy schemer — a comedic combo that may be familiar but is also still funny and the two stars seem game for anything.
After a brief theatrical run, “Spirited” will live on Apple TV+ starting on Nov. 18, which is a good thing for families looking for some fun holiday viewing options. Parents will get to sample the PG-13 movie before deciding on who gets to watch and everyone can take a popcorn break over the 2-hour runtime, which even that you’ll forgive because, it’s the holidays and Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds literally singing and dancing for you
“Spirited,” an Apple TV+ release in theaters Friday and streaming Nov. 18, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association for language, some suggestive material and thematic elements. Running time: 127 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
MPA Definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.