‘Twas the month before Christmas and streaming to my place was a new holiday film that put a smile on my face. Yes, we’re just a couple weeks after Halloween which means one only thing. No, not Thanksgiving! It means Christmas. It is the time of year where we all the new Christmas albums, TV specials, films and other content reaches the masses.
This year Apple TV+ brings us Spirited, yet another take on the Charles Dickens classic, “A Christmas Carol.” The original story that has been given the film treatment since shortly after the technology was invented. Some of the versions are wonderful, some unbearably bad, many forgetful. Luckily for Spirited, the film successfully aims high enough to avoid the latter two categories. While it doesn’t quite hit the bullseye, it does deliver an original, slightly over-aspiring take on the Scrooge redemption story.
This version does not revolve around Ebenezer Scrooge himself, or even Cratchett – Spirited focuses on the ghosts who haunt him. For those unfamiliar with the tale, Scrooge was a miserly, heartless, irredeemable mess of a man who hated Christmas. One Christmas Eve he was visited by three ghosts (four if you include Marley) who, in one night, show him his past, present, and future. The actions of that night make Scrooge (200-year old spoiler alert) change his ways. Ah, redemption. All is well and good in Victorian London, let’s close the book.
But wait, there’s more to the story. Spirited goes behind the scenes of the hauntings to reveal a redemption-by-ghost business (and it is a business, complete with R&D, an HR department, and retirement plans). In fact, Scrooge was not the only saved soul, there are hundreds more. Oh yeah, and for this film, the afterlife is a musical – a big, showy, Broadway-style musical.
What goes into a redemption? How are the nominees chosen? How do the ghosts do it all in one night? Those are a few of the questions answered inside this ghostly operation set on one goal, casting a ripple of good into the world. Hundreds of workers, dressed in holiday colored uniforms, work year-round on recreating, with pain-staking detail, the past, present and future worlds, that shaped their next subject.
The latest soul on their slate, Clint Briggs (Ryan Reynolds) an incredibly successful PR genius who creates online feuds and discord to the benefit of his clients. His main tool for spreading such negativity is Twitter, of course. Even though he has been labeled “unredeemable” by the life-changing ghosts, they want to try to fix the man to create a massive ripple what will change millions of people.
(I must mention, at the time of this review this is quite the case of perfect ‘coincidental’ timing since in real-life we are witnessing the potential collapse of the Elon Musk-owned Twitter. Not sure how you pulled it off, but nice move AppleTV+ PR team, like a page out of Clint Briggs’ book. Bravo!)
Leading the charge is (the Ghost of Christmas) Present (Will Ferrell) who taps into his Elf man-child charm for the role; a 200+ year old ghost whose centuries of not being alive has him longing to try human life again. He doesn’t want much from his second chance. He dreams of living in a quaint house with indoor plumbing and maybe a chance to try out that ‘new-fangled kissing.’ He also quickly enamored with for Briggs’ assistance, Kimberly (Octavia Spencer). As expected, Ferrell is a joy to watch – he is totally on his game. He delivers plenty of laughs while fully committing to the role that requires singing, dancing and even some romance. All while his character is torn between his two options of existence.
Like the original ‘A Christmas Carol’ this film is deceptively more layered than expected. Add on top of the original Spirited ‘s high concept approach, plus the multiple song and dance sequences, and the loads of humor and references, and it is only natural to fear that the message of Dickens’ classic will be crushed under the weight of writer-director Sean Anders’ ambition. The end result is the most Christmas-y of Christmas smoothies; a combination of classic ingredients: some The Rockettes, a whole bunch of Dickens, a dash of Elf, some Scrooged for good measure blended with some original Christmas/Christmas Carol lore.
As you may guess, there is just a lot going on at all times including rapid-fire jokes referencing everything from a 200 year-old book to modern day pop culture. It may leave you wishing for a little breathing room to let you catch up with the humor and to allow the more touching moments to sink in before the next musical number kicks in. Anders’ screenplay is at best clever, witty and sweet, but at times a little too much for its own good.
Much of this occurs when relying on modern references and wink-at-the-camera moments that may not play so well in a few years from now. Christmas films should aim to be timeless. For this reason some of the hit or miss meta moments and references to currently trending topics/people may cause some premature aging. At the same time, some of the humor swallowed up by the surrounding busyness will probably lead to more rewarding repeat viewings.
Providing the music is the team behind The Greatest Showman, Benj Pasek & Justin Paul. For some that is a promise of good things to come, others may shudder at the sound of their names. While overall successful, their work here is a mixed bag. The mileage on which will certainly vary depending on your taste. In general the music is strongest when capturing the feel of a scene or the emotions of a character. It is when they lean toward exposition where some viewers may say ultimately say, ‘Bah Humbug!’ Show it, don’t say it is a good rule, even if this is a musical.
But even the biggest curmudgeon should find a song or two enjoy, especially when the music is not used to do any heavy lifting. The best example is “Good Afternoon.” It makes the most of the playful nature of Farrell and Reynolds as they explore the use of the unspeakable curse words, dancing their way throughout the streets of 1800s London. The whole scene feels ripped right out of a PG-13 version of Mary Poppins. It is funny, it is unexpected and it capitalizes on the joyous fun of Christmas.
And, for a holiday film that runs a surprisingly long 127 minutes, all probably would have benefited by leaving about one third of the songs on the soundtrack instead of the big screen. As well-intentioned as the songs are and no matter how impressive Chloe Arnold’s choreography is, there is a lot packed into this film, sometimes crowbarred in, making them often feel as subtle as the Griswold family Christmas lights.
The film hits peak joyousness whenever Ferrell and Reynolds share the screen. Both pull off their musical numbers surprisingly well, but it is their natural odd couple chemistry that steals the show. Just how successful it is throughout makes me question if scaling back the production as a whole would have improved the results. Plus the shifting tone, as well as the creative and comedic scope make it hard to identify the target audience.
That is not to say the rest of the cast does not pull their weight. Patrick Page shows off his Broadway skills as Marley, adding some resistance to Present’s desire to be human. Sunita Mani’s take on ‘Past’ is a blast, taking the spirit to unexplored territories for some of the film’s biggest, more adult-targeted laughs. As Yet to Come, Tracy Morgan (acted out by Loren Woods) adds more comic moments.
It is obvious that Anders holds affectionately the decades of holiday content that makes up Christmas past. While the film can feel as overstuffed as The Grinch’s sleigh, its heart is always in the right place. After a slow start it turns out to be a jolly good time. Plus, Anders and Co. pull out all the tricks, adding some fun, new lore to the canon of the growing ‘A Christmas Carol’ cinematic multiverse.
Is Spirited our newest holiday classic? I am sure it will show up its fair share of annual viewing traditions lists. It biggest hurdle may require some patience, especially for those who are not fans of musicals. Once it hits its stride around a third into the film Spirited is a delightful ride that taps into some true holiday magic. After watching I found myself humming one of the songs – always a good sign. I guess it gave me that Christmas Morning Feelin’.
Spirited is now streaming exclusively on Apple TV+.
Watch our Spirited red carpets interviews below.