Review by C.J. Bunce
It takes some kind of chutzpah for Will Ferrell to try another Christmas movie after his starring role in Jon Favreau’s 2003 perfect Christmas movie Elf. So here he is co-starring with Ryan Reynolds in the Apple Original Film Spirited. Despite what you’ve heard, it’s not a retelling of A Christmas Carol. No, it’s a full-on sequel to A Christmas Carol–something we haven’t seen before. Add up all the modern spins on Charles Dickens’ Victorian holiday story that don’t adhere to the original, like Scrooged and The Man Who Invented Christmas, and this take is better, and much more fun. It’s not in the league of our top pick A Muppet Christmas Carol, but the earnestness of Ferrell in particular and a full album’s worth of solid musical numbers (yes, it’s also a musical) which balance parody with lyrics better than the best of the genre, and you have a movie worth watching this Christmas Eve. It’s streaming now on Apple TV+.
At first Spirited is a look at what came after the events of A Christmas Carol, nearly two centuries after Ebenezer Scrooge was visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future. Told from the perspective of the ghosts, with the past played by Sunita Mani (Everything Everywhere All at Once, GLOW), present by Will Ferrell, and past by a ghoulishly disguised Tracy Morgan, the story takes place in the world of A Christmas Carol, and it also refers to Dickens writing this world down in A Christmas Carol. In searching for the next “perp”–or the next bad human to get the Scrooge ghost visit treatment–Ferrell finds Ryan Reynolds’ Clint, a PR guy for AT&T among other things, who is more loathsome than a hotel owner that was the actual target (the AT&T sting is a quick Easter egg jab considering Reynolds is an owner of competitor Mint Mobile).
The switcheroo is Reynolds may be more vile than Ferrell ever was as a human–he’s labeled as “unredeemable” so lead ghost Marley (Schmigadoon’s Patrick Page) doesn’t want to allow the shift to Clint–which is a year-long planning project for the ghosts and their large support team. Clint throws Ferrell’s ghost off his game–the scares to make Clint rethink his poor choices aren’t working–and to complicate matters Ferrell’s ghost lets himself be seen by, and falls in love with, Clint’s assistant at getting dirt on people, played by Oscar winner Octavia Spencer.
Writer-director Sean Anders, with a script he co-wrote with John Norris (both worked on Dumb and Dumber To), pulled out all the stops in creating a clever story, with musical numbers, lyrics, and songs by Dominic Lewis (Bullet Train, The King’s Man). This is better than any 21st century musical you’ve seen, although it feels at times like the movie The Muppets (“I’m a Muppet of a Man”) or “Steve Rogers: The Musical.” It is structured like a Frank Capra movie, less like It’s a Wonderful Life but much like Meet John Doe or Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and has that old Hollywood feel-good style of many a movie found in TCM’s Christmas in the Movies.
For Reynolds’ part, this role is closest to his work in R.I.P.D.–less of that overtly Ryan Reynolds as Reynolds over-the-top Deadpool-esque performance that seems to be the bulk of his work lately. At some point Ferrell may have eclipsed Bill Murray as Saturday Night Live alumni go–here all those musical skits he created give him a lot of talent to work with.
The high point of the musical side of the movie is the number “Good Afternoon,” based on a made-up concept that the phrase “Good Afternoon” was an insult in the Victorian era (it wasn’t). The song is a perfect follow-on to the South Park movie’s “Blame Canada.” That’s in part because Canadian Ryan Reynolds leads the song and he and Ferrell would make a great Terrence and Phillip, but it’s also because it is just as funny and sharply witty, and like the South Park movie’s key song, probably going to get an Oscar nomination for all involved. It’s just that well done.
One of the funniest twists is the ghost of Christmas past ditching her efforts at scaring Clint because they’re both attracted to each other.
Some of the musical numbers sound like those “buy American” songs they use in farm implement commercials, and the entire show might make you feel like you’re watching a high school musical, but it has heart. The saccharine bits and cheese are mostly forgivable because it’s a Christmas show. Even if you don’t like musicals, you’ll probably make it through Spirited. It’s streaming now on Apple TV+.