Though a little too crammed with themes and ideas, Spirited is a heartwarming Christmas musical about love, redemption, and possibility.
A great twist on a beloved Dickensian tale, an all-star cast that gives it their all, spectacular musical numbers, catchy tunes, a sprinkle of humour, a somewhat unexpected twist, and a heartwarming message about redemption and kinship: Apple TV+’s Spirited has all of the above. So what is it, then, that doesn’t work in writer-director Sean Anders’ (Instant Family) Christmas musical? Perhaps it’s that, while each of these elements would have worked perfectly well on their own, trying to blend them all together led to a film that is neither of those things – a film that is too lighthearted to be taken seriously and yet too serious for its jokes to land. What we have, in the end, is a Christmas musical/drama/rom-com/comedy that you’ll still enjoy for its charismatic leads and touching message but that is too unfocused to be truly memorable.
Which is a shame, because Spirited ‘s premise is brilliant. We’ve seen so many adaptations of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” that we know the tale by heart: a selfish, ruthless man is visited by three ghosts who take him to key moments in his past, present, and future to make him reevaluate his behaviour, until he redeems himself and makes amends, and the spirit of Christmas is restored. But what if that same tale was told from the point of view of the ghosts? Sean Anders and co-writer and frequent collaborator John Morris (Horrible Bosses 2) envisage a world where there’s an entire crew behind each of the ghosts’ interventions. In that universe, redeeming souls actually involves a whole lot of planning: research needs to be done on each target, sets need to be designed, and costumes need to be changed, with a behind-the-scenes team of spirits ready to intervene with scene recreations and transitions.
In charge of it all are Jacob Marley (Patrick Page, of In The Heights) and Present (Will Ferrell, of Anchorman), the former a highly efficient thespian/coordinator who takes tradition very seriously and the latter a Ghost who’s been eligible for retirement for 46 years and yet chooses to keep saving souls because he loves his job. But this year, things are different: on one of his trips to Earth, Present happens to meet a man who’s quite simply a horrible person – or, to use Present’s own words, “the perfect combination of Mussolini and Seacrest”.
As he watches him first give a speech about how to manipulate consumers and then refuse his niece’s request for advice, he’s mesmerized by the stranger’s lack of remorse and empathy, and the conviction and arrogance with which he stands by his very wrong ideals. “He’s so persuasive he makes you want to push an old lady down a flight of stairs,” Present mutters to himself, and makes it his mission to save him. Except that the man in question, businessman Clint Briggs (Ryan Reynolds, of Deadpool and The Adam Project), has been deemed “unredeemable” by the Ghost World.
Needless to say, that doesn’t stop Present from attempting to do the impossible, and the preparations for Christmas Eve begin. But when the time comes for Clint to face the three ghosts, the man turns the tables on them and makes it all about Present’s own past life as a human instead. “Is it time to find out if I’m meant for more than just a Christmas morning feeling?,” Present sings, and the soul searching begins for both protagonists, leading to unexpected discoveries about one another and important choices to make.
There’s a lot to like in Spirited, starting from Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell, who shine as their larger-than-life selves and have great chemistry with one another. The two leads are joined by a talented cast, with Sunita Mani (Everything Everywhere All At Once) providing effective comic relief and often acting as the voice of reason as Past, and Yet-To-Come (played by Loren Woods and voiced by Tracy Morgan) turning out to be so much more than a judgemental, scary looking ghost that does nothing but point fingers at people. The movie’s standout is Octavia Spencer (The Help), whose appearance as Clint’s employee Kimberly marks the exact point in which Spirited begins to grab our attention. Though Spencer has limited screentime in the film, the scenes she does have are also the most believable and affecting, thanks to her ability to bring depth to any character she plays.
Unfortunately, what doesn’t work in Spirited is its inconsistent tone, as a result of the film’s attempt to blend too many themes and ideas into one movie, and be too many things at once. There are at least three different endings in a Christmas comedy-drama that feels like it should have been half-an-hour shorter, and its many musical numbers are dazzling and well-choreographed but also act as a distraction from the film’s actual story. The comedy only works at times, and mainly thanks to Gosling and Ferrell’s delivery, but there are also many jokes that don’t land or that don’t really blend with the film’s tone. What do work, in the end, are Spirited ‘s more serious, emotionally affecting scenes, which reflect those of Dickens’ tale and are just as heartwarming and uplifting, sending across a message of love and showing us that it’s never too late to change.
Personally, I think the film would have worked so much better if it hadn’t been a musical, as the time saved by the loss of its musical numbers could have been invested in character and narrative development, and made for a more cohesive story. As it is, Spirited is a missed opportunity, but it’s an enjoyable enough film nonetheless, and it’s still bound to give you “that Christmas morning feelin'” and put you in a good mood.
Spirited will be released in US theaters on November 11 and on Apple TV+ on November 18, 2022.