Will Ferrell’s signature comedy style is halfway between obnoxious and endearing, a naïve man-child whose excitable energy is matched by his fearless disregard for dignity. Anyone who’s been missing that persona should find something to enjoy in Spirited, Ferrell’s bid to headline another holiday perennial to sit alongside Elf. His delivery remains inspired and his chemistry with Ryan Reynolds, playing the smarmy Scrooge figure in this busy 21st-century riff on A Christmas Carol, has lots of fizz, even if a supposed romance with Octavia Spencer’s character doesn’t. But is the movie any good?
That will depend on how closely you identify with the delicious disdain of Patrick Page as the chain-rattling Jacob Marley, upholder of the Dickensian tradition, who rolls his eyes and begs for a reprieve almost every time someone bursts into song. Because, yes, it’s a musical.
The Bottom Line
Entertaining, despite itself.
Unlike Marley, I love a movie musical. But this is a movie musical made by filmmakers — director Sean Anders and co-writer John Morris, reteaming with Ferrell after the Daddy’s Home comedies — who seem to have no idea how a movie musical works. The songs seldom sprout organically from the narrative, more often feeling shoehorned in to dial up the excitement. What makes them even sloppier is choreography by Chloe Arnold — her regular gig is The Late Late Show with James Corden — that’s all about frenetic movement, never about dance as a storytelling tool.
Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the music collaborators behind Dear Evan Hansen, La La Land and The Greatest Showman, are capable tunesmiths, so the songs themselves are not bad even if the composers’ love of big emphatic anthems gets tiring. Aside from Page, who has ample musical theater experience, none of the principals can really sing, though they get by, more or less.
But the production numbers are such frantic eyesores, it’s easy to imagine viewers hitting fast-forward when the movie lands on Apple TV+ Nov. 18, following a weeklong stint in theaters — also because those infernal musical interludes push what should be a brisk comedy over the two-hour mark.
The movie and even its title seem like a tip of the hat to the 1988 Bill Murray vehicle, Scrooged. But Ferrell foregoes the lip-smacking villainy of that legendary misanthrope in favor of a traditionally secondary role, the Ghost of Christmas Present. Working side by side with Marley, Christmas Past (Sunita Mani), Christmas Yet-to-Come (Loren Woods, with the voice of Tracy Morgan) and a massive support team, he’s part of a major operation, selecting suitable candidates for redemption each holiday season.
“Present” is long overdue for retirement and HR has been nudging him to return to human form on Earth and live out his remaining years. But before he can take that step, Present wants to make a difference, reforming not just another lone perp but someone whose unkindness has a global reach. He finds just the guy in Clint Briggs (Reynolds), a soulless marketing maverick who specializes in creating controversy, conflict and disinformation. “Feed that hate” is his credo.
“He’s like the perfect combination of Mussolini and Seacrest!” enthuses Present. But Marley is unconvinced, describing Clint as “a level-20 pain in the ass” with a file that tags him as “Unredeemable.” Only once before has an Unredeemable been successfully put through the program, and it doesn’t take a trip back in time to Olde England to figure out who that was. But you know we’ll get one anyway.
At every step, Clint appears to prove Marley right, notably when he agrees to help his orphaned niece Wren (Marlow Barkley) get elected student council president by having his resourceful executive assistant Kimberly (Spencer) dig up dirt on the kid’s popular opponent. Smearing an 8th grade boy is all in a day’s work for Clint, but Kimberly has a conscience and of course she’s going to sing about it.
That song, “The View from Here,” is a perfect example of the film’s cluelessness about basic musical mechanics. In a role that tamps down her sparkling gift for comedy, Spencer sings — sometimes more like croaks — about Kimberly’s sorrow, taking paychecks and pretending not to care about the lives she’s destroying. It’s an intimate moment of painful introspection, but Anders and Arnold have office workers whirling around like Martha Graham dancers on meth.
Thankfully, that doesn’t seem to bother Present, who’s touched by Kimberly’s personal reflections and surprised to discover she’s the first person other than a perp who can actually see and hear him. This lays the groundwork for a shy romance that’s one of the more under-developed elements of Anders and Morris’ script.
More consistent focus is given to Present’s determination to find a crack in Clint’s cynical armor, the most likely area being his promise years earlier to his dying sister (Andrea Anders). But Clint is not intimidated by Present or any of his ghostly companions. Instead, he turns the tables on them, finding a particularly malleable plaything when he starts grilling Present about his own past.
This being A Christmas Carol, we know that no matter how convoluted the plotting becomes, it’s going to turn out with lessons learned and dark souls ushered into the light. The film makes some solid points about how online culture has fostered an epidemic of meanness and how choosing kindness is not a single step but a gradual process within reach of all of us. The big all-stops-out finale, “Do a Little Good,” is the best of the songs and also an effective delivery method for that holiday message.
The movie is certainly colorful enough, though the fantasy version of Christmastime Manhattan looks as flat and artificial as Victorian London. It all feels about as lived-in as a department store holiday window display, no more real than the CG-heavy ghost world inhabited by the haunting team.
Morgan’s voice work yields some laughs, coming from beneath the grim reaper-style hooded cloak of Christmas Yet-to-Come, and a few star cameos help perk up interest. But Spirited owes its buoyancy primarily to the lively rapport of Ferrell and Reynolds, ultimately playing out the movie’s most convincing love story.
Reynolds’ glib shtick is molded here into an unrepentant, greed-driven A-hole who never met a situation he couldn’t manipulate to his advantage. But somehow, Present’s guilelessness uncovers the residual humanity in him.
Ferrell, who gets the best lines, many of them just throwaways, is an innocent thrust into an existential crisis, a place of chaos and confusion in which the comedian thrives. I could almost forgive all the oafish musical overkill just for the pleasure of watching the ancient spirit Present look up from a TV and announce in a voice filled with wondrous discovery: “I think I might have moderate to severe Crohn’s disease!”