At this point it is almost impossible to count the number of remakes, ripoffs, variations, takeoffs and general thievery on the part of filmmakers riffing on Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol. The latest imitation, Spirited, isn’t even the only new version to debut this season; I can count at least two others still waiting for liftoff as the yuletide tidings continue in 2022. But this one has some real firepower in terms of who is involved with the Apple TV+ original film, chief among them stars Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell, who deliver a take most closely aligned with Bill Murray’s modern 1988 Scrooged, a homage even noted in the rat-a-tat snarky script here by John Morris and Sean Anders (Daddy’s Home), the latter who also directed.
Above all this is a lively musical with a whole slew of new tunes featuring some of the blessedly most cynical lyrics ever to be sung in a holiday confection like this. They all come from the primo songwriting team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land, Dear Evan Hansen, The Greatest Showman), who are no strangers to Xmas jingles having written the stage, and later TV musical adaptation, of A Christmas Story. Their signature style is fully on display here in a lot of big numbers backed with overly busy choreography by Chloe Arnold.
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The premise here is that there has been a centuries-old operation run by no-nonsense Jacob Marley (Patrick Page) who enlists the ghostly trio of Ghosts of Christmases Past (Sunita Mani), Present (Ferrell), and Yet-To-Come (Loren Woods, with voice of Tracy Morgan) to “redeem” some very Scrooge-like souls each year — as we discover early on with their current target, a mean-spirited white suburban woman named Karen (you bet!).
The real action switches to modern-day New York City, where Present has convinced a doubting Marley that he can actually work his magic on a truly “unredeemable” souless marketing executive named Clint Briggs (Reynolds), who uses underhanded ways to exploit and spread hate, and particularly social media bile, to sell his stuff. Nothing is off the table with this unscrupulous guy. The conflict between Present (who is invisible to all as are the other ghostly presences, until they aren’t) and Clint, plus their own weird bro-like relationship, makes up the bulk of the drama as Clint is firmly the “scrooge” of this show and, as we discover, Present was also that unredeemable person all those centuries ago — the OG who has spent a whole deathtime trying hard to be good.
One key moment has Present taking Clint to the bedside of his dying sister (Andrea Anders), forcing a touch of humanity he quickly tries to extinguish. Another has him interacting with his niece Wren, who is running for junior high school president against a popular boy who Clint urges her to annihilate in a dirty campaign tactic (all too recognizable in the era of Trump and the midterms we have just been through). This turns lethal when Yet-To-Come shows Clint the very dark future, and it ain’t such a wonderful life. Meanwhile when Present finds he is actually visible to Clint’s number two executive Kimberly (Octavia Spencer), who has basically sold her soul to Clint’s devil in return for a plush job and office, she realizes how wrong she has been doing his dirty work, destroying the opposition at all costs. Spencer gets a lovely number, “The View From Here,” that serves as a transitional tune, and even a budding romance with Present who is being urged to retire and return to the living for his final years.
Spirited is ripe with contemporary references and smart-alecky lines, perfect for the screen persona of Reynolds, who knows how to deliver them, and for the Elf -like sweetness and confusion of Ferrell who is in his comfort zone here if not quite in the same classic mold of Buddy. The movie actually stays close to Dickens in many ways, including a flashback to the origins of the story in Victorian England, and even a rollicking huge production number “Good Afternoon” in the streets that mirrors similar (if less subversive) numbers from Dickens musicals like “Consider Yourself” from Oliver and “Thank You Very Much” from the 1970 musical adaptation Scrooge.
The scary faceless hooded Yet-To-Come ghost is a hilarious highlight, with Morgan’s voice complaining about only being able to point his fingers at the next chosen victim. Mani’s Past is wryly funny, and Spencer is always reliable, here underplaying the role and adding a touch of reality. Still this show belongs to Reynolds and Ferrell, and they deliver exactly what we expect, if not exactly being musical performers of the highest rank (though Ferrell socks home his big solo, “Unredeemable,” like he was Josh Groban). Both fill the void with much-needed fun, keeping this two-hour plus-concoction humming along. The dance numbers, and there are a few, are basically uninspired in relation to the smart and bright songs that include a rousing closer called “Do a Little Good” that Pasek and Paul have supplied to accompany them. Filling the screen with a boatload of dancers and giving them little direction except to keep moving frantically doesn’t impress, but fortunately it also doesn’t distract from a Christmas movie very aware of what it wants to be and where it wants to go. It is indeed “spirited” enough to get by. You can almost feel the inevitable Broadway adaptation coming soon.
Producers are Anders, Morris, David Koplan, George Dewey, Ferrell and Jessica Elbaum.
It plays theaters beginning Friday and hits streaming November 18 on Apple TV+.
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