Though the sappy message in “Spirited” preaches that people can change, this spiffy musical comedy sure feels like an homage to tried-and-true Hollywood classics. An entertaining holiday jaunt for the whole family, “Spirited” is familiar and formulaic in the best of ways, like a loud sweater or syrupy fireside cocoa. Proudly wearing its adaptation status on its sleeve, “Spirited” turns Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” into a contemporary feel-good comedy — with flashy musical numbers to boot.
Reprising some of the shenanigans of his lovable “Elf” character, reliable funnyman Will Ferrell plays a jovial ghost of Christmas present opposite a dastardly Ryan Reynolds as a modern day Scrooge. Bolstered by a stellar ensemble, both Ferrell and Reynolds make surprisingly charming showmen, impressing with confident crooning — and even some light choreo. It’s refreshing to see two stars who could have easily phoned it in for the rest of their careers push themselves to try new things.
Even more thrilling, they really can sing!
Being a Christmas story for 2022, “Spirited” takes us behind the scenes of the business of haunting people, turning the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future into a massive operation that runs like a singing startup. Tasked with refurbishing the most morally bankrupt souls, these ghosts and their throngs of helpers pore over cartoon files in search of the most entitled Karens to haunt into changing their ways. The movie opens with Ferrell’s character wondering: “Do people really change? I mean real, lasting, positive change.” The rest of the movie hammers home this vaguely altruistic moral compass, spilling a few too many words on this comfortably apolitical message.
Credited simply as “Present,” Ferrell’s character is aided by Past (the charming Sunita Mani), and a faceless grim reaper-like Future (voiced by Tracy Morgan). Ringleader Jake (Patrick Page) has final approval of the “perps,” as they call their targets for rehabilitation by haunting. Ideally they try to choose someone awful who also has power over others, so their turnaround will have a ripple effect and cause exponential good in the world. What with all the evil in the world, Present has become disillusioned with the system and doubtful that his work really makes a difference.
That all changes when he sees Clint Briggs (Reynolds), a ruthless media consultant for hire and expert manipulator. Wearing dastardly villain with his wry toothy smile, the rakish Briggs gets the catchiest numbers, such as the brash sales number “We’re Bringing Back Christmas.” Reynolds glides through the sets like a debonair devil, sowing seeds of greed and mistrust with ridiculous gimmicks, like the ability to switch into a spiffy new suit at the snap of his fingers. This slick character gives the ghosts their toughest challenge yet: Redeeming an “irredeemable.”
There is something undeniably fun about seeing behind the scenes at the haunting factory, which looks and feels like Santa’s workshop by way of the New York Stock Exchange. This bustling scene offers plenty of opportunity for diversions from funny supporting characters, including a delightful detour into Past falling hard for Briggs’ pearly whites.
Present gets his own sweet romance when he becomes enamored with Briggs’ right hand Kimberly (Octavia Spencer), a kindhearted go-getter who feels conflicted by her career choices. Showing off her considerable pipes, Spencer is a pleasant addition to the already stacked cast, and it’s so lovely to see her as a romantic lead, even in a movie as silly as this one.
Sean Anders directs the script he co-wrote with John Morris, the brains behind such illustrious comedies as “Hot Tub Time Machine” and “Daddy’s Home.” The duo’s more sophomoric tendencies are tempered by the earnestness of the original songs, written by “Dear Evan Hansen” duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.
As Briggs and Present wear each other down with their escalating tactics, all of the magic and music in “Spirited” eventually gives way to a good old-fashioned bromance. And even though it has the visual appeal of a Gap commercial shot in an Apple store, Anders shoots the well-choreographed numbers with a smooth confidence that suggests a love of old Hollywood musicals.
To borrow one of its sung sentiments, “Spirited” is sure to send out ripples of joy this holiday season. Though it may not make any waves, it’s enough to spread a little good cheer.
“Spirited” premieres in theaters on Friday, November 11 and will start streaming on Apple TV+ on Friday, November 18.