Ryan Reynolds and Will Farrell star in "Spirited." Photo courtesy of Apple TV+

‘Spirited’ is a musical retelling of ‘A Christmas Carol’

As with many Christmas Carol adaptations, ‘Spirited’ tries to differentiate itself.

  • Directed by: Sean Anders
  • Starring: Will Ferrell, Ryan Reynolds, Octavia Spencer
  • Musical/Comedy | PG-13 | 2 hr 7 min
  • Streaming on Apple TV+

By Reed Ripley

This film is a truly hilarious and heartwarming story of a jerk played by Ryan Reynolds, turned against his fellow man after experiencing the darker side of humanity as a kid, whose hardened heart is thawed through Christmastime reminders of the man he used to be. Oh, I’m not talking about Spirited, I’m talking about 2005’s Just Friends, a much funnier, much more efficient film than this latest shot at A Christmas Carol

As with many Christmas Carol adaptations, Spirited tries to differentiate itself. After all, the story’s almost two centuries old, and liberal adaptation is almost necessary. Aside from its musical underpinnings, the film offers two admittedly interesting narrative choices. First, rather than paint its tale as a one-off spiritual intervention, it quickly reveals that the whole Ghosts of Christmas phenomenon is a streamlined business, where quasi-CEO Jacob Marley directs the Ghosts as VPs of their respective haunts. Think The Santa Clause with a more white-collar tilt. 

Second, there’s a twist about midway through that brings the original Christmas Carol material directly into the story, which centers on the current Ghost of Christmas Present (Will Ferrell) as he attempts to redeem this season’s haunt, Clint Briggs, an “unredeemable” public relations executive. Both these decisions are good enough on paper to carry an adaptation, but they get completely lost in an overstuffed mess, most frustratingly with the musical numbers. Spirited is billed primarily as a musical, but I couldn’t help but feel if every song and dance were cut, the film would have worked somewhat better. The musical numbers mostly have a show choir vibe, and I don’t see any songs breaking into anyone’s Christmas Favorites playlist. 

Looking at the history of Christmas-centric movie musicals, curiously, it’s clearly difficult to make them work. Music is inextricably linked to Christmastime, but films that have tried to tap into that melodious cheer almost always fall flat, especially outside children’s animation. The one true Christmas-focused success is White Christmas, and that debuted almost 70 years ago. 

Outside that, it’s a hodgepodge of adored Rankin/Bass productions (Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town), miscellaneous animated classics (A Charlie Brown Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas), films that arguably aren’t Christmas films at all (The Nightmare Before Christmas, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Sound of Music), and other attempts at a musical Christmas Carol (Scrooge, The Muppet Christmas Carol, A Christmas Carol: The Musical). With so much classic Christmas music out there, breaking into that space with original songs in a film is an uphill battle that requires excellent songwriting, a great story, and engaging talent, and Spirited doesn’t come close.

That’s not to say the rest of the film on its own would merit much better praise. One of the reasons why “A Christmas Carol” is so gripping is that Scrooge is such an un-repenting jerk at the story’s beginning, with seemingly no redeemable qualities. That’s what makes his redemption arc so compelling and the memories of his humanity so haunting. Spirited doesn’t fully commit to that arc, thanks largely to Reynolds’ casting. Playing a jerk with a clear soft side is one of his strong suits, and he can’t turn off the charm enough to play a convincing Scrooge analogue. 

Spirited is bitterly disappointing, especially given Ferrell’s involvement. He delivered an all-time Christmas classic in Elf, and this time around, the magic just isn’t there. 

Reed Ripley is a local attorney with a flare for watching movies. You can find more reviews from Reed Ripley at Ripleysreviews.com

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