It’s tempting to return to the well with a story like Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, as it’s a story so familiar it can be molded into so many different forms and shapes. The musical genre is one of the most frequent used to try and update this time tested classic, and Apple TV+’s Spirited is the latest project to roll the dice with the concept. With Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds teamed up, and songs from The Greatest Showman masterminds Benj Pasek and Justin Paul on deck, this movie has a formula at the heart of it that feels like a fine attempt at something fresh.
The end result couldn’t be further from the truth, however. Director Sean Anders’ entry in the Christmas canon makes a lot of bizarre choices in the name of innovation, and yet this story of PR miser Clint Briggs (Ryan Reynolds), who needs the old three spirits treatment, never lands the fresh take it’s trying to spin. It’s upsetting, as one of the novel tweaks that’s included is a peek into the life of the Ghost of Christmas Present (Will Ferrell), and the entire operation that runs the typical “Christmas Carol” bracket on a new unwitting participant each year.
A grab bag of attempts at musical whimsy, offbeat humor, and emotional hallmarks ensues throughout Spirited. Save for a couple moments and elements that hint at the promise that could have been fulfilled by this holiday offering, it’s a miss so huge that the script doctor of Christmas past should be called in to clean up the mess.
Yet another musical/comedy take on A Christmas Carol, Spirited doesn’t know which half it likes better.
The individual lenses of comedy and musical spectacle have both been used to make some rather entertaining Christmas movies and innovative adaptations of A Christmas Carol. Spirited is firmly aware of this, as it makes tons of references to movies like Scrooged, and tries to send up the typical framework of Charles Dickens’ oft imitated original. In trying to hit both targets with the same payload, what we’re left with is a film that doesn’t know which half it wants to focus on more.
With the comedy of Spirited, there’s an air of playing it safe for the sake of remaining family viewing material. There’s nary an obscenity, nor do the deeds of any of these characters cross over into anything too heinous or racy. Yet there’s a running gag about the Ghost of Christmas Past (Sunita Mani) thirsting over, and eventually sleeping with Ryan Reynolds’ ne’er-do-well during his Christmas Carol moment.
If that approach wasn’t confusing enough, the musical elements of Spirited also fail to get any sort of substantial commitment. Songs are interrupted and cut off by jokes pointing out that yes, you’re watching a musical – which is frustrating if you’re trying to even attempt to get into the music. It’s even more angering when the end credits reveal that perhaps the best song in the film, a victim of the winking and nodding Spirited trades heavily in, was cut from the movie due to one of those jokes.
The teaming of Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds is wasted on a tonal mess of a movie.
Writers Sean Anders and John Morris, as well as Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds, are teams that sound like reliable comedic forces. Given that the writing team crafted the Daddy’s Home films and more notably the surprisingly warm but funny Instant Family, to see Spirited land on its face as hard as it does is a massive disappointment. To add to those injuries, the concept is so squandered that not even reliable smart asses like Ferrell and Reynolds can help it recover.
It all comes down to the mixed signals of Spirited affecting both its execution and its tone. The wheelhouses of both lead actors do have some areas of overlap that, when hit correctly, can lead to crowdpleasing moments for everyone to enjoy. Material such as this script reflects a basic understanding of that formula, but fails to yield any substantial stand outs of musical or comedic prowess.
Spirited would have been better suited by either hiring performers more confident with musical performing, or overhauling its story to kick out the musical element. While the the lead actors deliver admirable efforts, and occupy a very listenable frequency, the songs don’t land with enough panache to overcome lyrics like “that Christmas morning feeling” that would be better suited on a Rae Dunn mug than in a spectacle of performance.
Spirited is devoid of Christmas magic, as many questionable choices undercut what was a promising concept.
Thanks to handcuffing its humor to an odd mixture of testing the boundaries of family friendly entertainment, while never committing to the musical atmosphere it aspires for, Spirited undercuts itself at every chance it gets. Moments of attempted emotion are interrupted by wacky hijinks, self-awareness deflates any chance of Christmas magic actually taking hold, and the questionable usage of a cyberbullying suicide all make for a holiday treat that comes out underbaked.
I can see where Spirited felt like a good idea, as, again, there are pieces of promise that shine on this metaphorical Christmas tree. It’s just too bad that some strands of lights don’t connect to others, it’s bald in some places, and there seem to be a couple of branches missing.
There’s no joy in highlighting where things went wrong, as being a fan of A Christmas Carol in many different incarnations made me want to enjoy this movie more. It even hurts knowing that members of this team have provided many laughs and smiles through their stocks in trade through other projects. Nevertheless, Spirited is one humbug of a holiday musical, whose brand of cheese is as fresh as the ones you’d find in the dreaded holiday meat and cheese packages that stock the shelves this time of year.