Song has the ability to take the simplest thought—or even a trite expression—and turn it into a moment of joyful uplift. It offers a direct line to more readily accepted vulnerability, and rumination about self-betterment.
This fact is on ample display throughout Spirited, a sweet-hearted and largely successful modern musical comedy reimagining of Charles Dickens’ classic 1843 novella A Christmas Carol, as told from the point of view of its haunting spirits. While not without some issues, the movie lands as a modern-day fable whose colorfully packaged and exuberantly pitched life lessons carry an undeniable timeliness.
Directed by Sean Anders from a screenplay he wrote with John Morris, the story centers around a motley crew of afterlife Christmas do-gooders, where Jacob Marley (Patrick Page) and his seeming second-in-command, the Ghost of Christmas Present (Will Ferrell), annually select one person to be reformed. Each year is spent meticulously researching and rehearsing their subject’s past, to craft a tailored experience that, when enacted by three holiday spirits, will then hopefully put them on a path toward being a better person.
The latest chosen “perp” is allegedly unredeemable: Clint Briggs (Ryan Reynolds), a hotshot marketing/PR consultant and merchant of disinformation (“a perfect combination of Mussolini and Seacrest,” says one party) who’s made a very successful career out of manufacturing outrage and feeding societal tribalism.
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The slick-talking Clint manages to turn the tables a bit on his otherworldly visitors, quickly bedding a smitten Ghost of Christmas Past (Sunita Mani) and then flummoxing Present by peppering him with questions about his own past. As Present tries to regroup and use Clint’s orphaned 13-year-old niece Wren (Marlow Barkley) to steer him toward an awakening of conscience, he also deals with burgeoning feelings for Clint’s longtime lieutenant Kimberly (Octavia Spencer), who for reasons unknown can actually see him.
Director Anders and writing partner Morris got their start in decidedly randier comedic fare; Anders helmed Sex Drive and That’s My Boy, and the pair also took script credits on Hot Tub Time Machine, She’s Out Of My League and We’re the Millers, among other titles.
Eventually, though, Anders migrated over to comedic efforts that, while still broad at times, also invested significant energy in attempting to locate, elevate, and celebrate domestic comedy. These movies included Daddy’s Home and its sequel, plus 2018’s Instant Family, the latter of which is based in part on Anders’ own experiences with the foster care system as an adoptive parent. It’s in this same realm—where small acts of kindness signal transforming potential—in which Spirited exists.
In somewhat of a concession to narrative focus, the movie generally eschews that most dreaded of modern Hollywood phrases, world-building, in favor of concentrating more tightly on characters. In doing so, however, the movie inadvertently raises more questions around the edges than it answers. One wonders, for example, about Marley’s staff and resources, how ghosts enter this afterlife occupational track, and the like.
While Spirited is self-conscious about its 127-minute length (there’s the seemingly now standard modern musical device of having one character exasperated by song and dance, and trying to cut others off), its problems are less about that, and more about really locking in the conflict and battle between Clint and Present, who are rather fitfully at odds. Spirited exists in a bit of a gray zone where Reynolds and Ferrell’s characters aren’t quite fully antagonistic, nor are they frenemies. As a result, its editorial pivot points sometimes feel strained. One moment that really connects will at times give way to another that feels forced.
Still, there are plenty of quite good patches in Spirited, and even some fleeting moments when it touches greatness. A good portion of the former certainly derives from the starring pair, each of whom delivers engaged, very appealing performances. These aren’t phoned-in turns leaning on well-honed comedic crutches; they’re multi-dimensional, and sincerely grounded in characters with well-articulated points of view and their own problems.
A lot of the film’s connection, though, quite obviously also lies in its music, which is built around tunes from songwriters Benj Pasek, Justin Paul (both Oscar-winners from La La Land), Khiyon Hursey, Sukari Jones, and Mark Sonnenblick. “Bringin’ Back Christmas,” a solo tune for Reynolds, gives off strong The Music Man vibes. “View From Here,” with Spencer and Ferrell, effectively targets the heart. The male duet “Good Afternoon,” amusingly rooted in the most devastating insult of the 1800s, folds in perhaps the most unexpected cameo of the year. “Ripple,” a clipped number that makes a fuller appearance in the end credits, exalts the movie’s main message of civility. Meanwhile, choreographer Chloe Arnold makes great use of a talented chorus line, crafting dance numbers with flair and energy.
For all its success here, though, there’s still some tension in committing to the musical format. Ferrell obviously has rich singing experience, in everything from Saturday Night Live and The Producers to Eurovision Song Contest and even Semi-Pro (don’t sleep on “Love Me Sexy”). Reynolds, meanwhile, throws himself into his tunes with aplomb. With performers as gifted as this pair, an even more rigorous adherence to musical formula would have been invigorating to see.
At its core, Spirited aims to assay change. Its characters are in passionate conflict about whether personal transformation is possible; Clint says no, Present has an ace up his sleeve which says otherwise. Against this backdrop, the film eventually blossoms into a sneakily ambitious inventorying of how incrementalism stacks up against full, finger-snap transcendence. And it’s here that Spirited works best—much more than the thematically connected but slightly overplayed plot strand about Present’s crush on Kimberly, and the possibility of choosing a corporeal life.
Part of what makes A Christmas Carol so timeless and malleable in form is that its narrative isn’t really so much about seasonal generosity of spirit, but instead the underpinning traits and behaviors which color our action year-round.
And in this sense, Spirited distinguishes itself, because it does really make a genuine attempt to address some of the highly reactionary coarseness of the present-day real world, particularly within the online realm. As art itself becomes increasingly “tribalized,” and the target of attack, there is legitimate value to a slice of sincere, populist amusement which is aiming foremost to entertain, and only advance a “message” built around baseline human decency.
One can acknowledge that with a soft smile and still wish the film were just a bit sharper.