Spirited review: Ryan Reynolds's unruly but enjoyable yuletide romp
Will Ferrell and Octavia Spencer also star in this fresh musical spin on A Christmas Carol from writer/director Sean Anders.
In recent years, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol has been subject to numerous radical revamps. Director Robert Zemeckis added motion-capture effects all the way from uncanny valley. Guy Pearce supplied a sociopathic Scrooge, while Doctor Who found room for flying sharks.
Even so, co-writer/director Sean Anders’ twist – despite its manifold flaws – finds fresh scope for elaboration in Dickens’s redemptive fable, give or take intermittent lapses into over-familiar, over-egged schmaltz.
Featuring songs by Benj Pasek, Justin Paul (both of La La Land and The Greatest Showman fame), Khiyon Hursey, Sukari Jones and Mark Sonnenblick, Spirited is a musical variation on Dickens, brimming with often excessive but exuberant showtune set-pieces.
At its core is a nifty conceit pitched somewhere between Charlie Kaufman and Monsters, Inc., wherein the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet-to-Come are part of a secret company of spectres whose job involves turning bad eggs good. They scare because they care, essentially.
Almost 20 years after he banked a seasonal staple in Elf, Will Ferrell assumes a more restrained guise as the Ghost of Christmas Present. Ferrell’s spectre has been in the job for two centuries, working alongside – as credited - Past (Sunita Mani) and Yet-to-Come (Loren Woods, voice by Tracy Morgan). While Yet-to-Come aspires to do more than just point ominously, Present is overdue for retirement, which here means a return to the living world.
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But Ferrell’s long-haul redeemer can’t resist a challenge, which he finds in Ryan Reynolds’ Clint Briggs, a PR cad who thinks nothing of smearing his niece’s tween competitors on social media in order to help her school election bid. Present wants to work some redemptive magic, but might Clint be truly “unredeemable”?
If the answer emerges too slowly over Spirited’s 127-minute sprawl, there’s still fun to be had as Clint turns the tables on Present, intent on finding out what is going on in the ghost’s afterlife. And, of course, there are songs and dancing, all dressed up like the gaudiest Christmas shopping mall you ever wanted to run away from.
Reynolds’s brassy opening showtune is droll and playful, with the none-more-seasonal phrase “same-day shipping” smartly worked in, but the busy surrounding choreography sometimes seems designed to induce dizziness.
If Ferrell and Reynolds can’t really sing, they at least commit to the job gamely, their struggles to hit the notes helping to humanise the characters. Required to carry out Clint’s dirty work as his rueful assistant Kimberly, Octavia Spencer fares better in the vocal stakes with The View from Here a standout lament for her place in the world where she finds depths in her character.
On the sidelines, Ferrell’s Present falls in love with Kimberly while listening to her plaint. While Anders fails to invest this romantic subplot with conviction, he gives the budding bromance between Present and Clint far more time, to mixed ends. For a long stretch, Anders’s sometimes ill-integrated romp neglects to commit to the musical format as it watches the chalk-and-cheese leads chafe and bond.
The most appealing of the two, Ferrell’s ghost banks a decent share of endearing fish-out-of-water laughs. Reynolds’s smarmy sarcasm can veer close to autopilot in contrast, though he summons flashes of disarming charm and cheek as needed. The script’s achingly self-aware jibes at Christmas tales and films prove rather more grating: though such self-mockery feigns cleverness, the effect runs close to self-defeating.
When Anders leans more readily into his film’s strengths, there’s enough here to redeem. Surprise twists and shows of comic spritz help offset inevitable lapses into seasonal sentiment, while a Victorian musical set-piece finds fresh and mischievous uses for a famous bit of Scrooge dialogue. At moments like these, Anders’s unruly but fitfully enjoyable and inventive romp does, just occasionally, live up to its title.
Spirited is showing in select UK cinemas and on Apple TV+ from Friday 18th November 2022 – you can sign up to Apple TV+ here.