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Spirited Review

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Spirited is now showing in select theaters and will stream on Apple TV+ on Nov. 18.

The surprisingly scary 1983 Mickey’s Christmas Carol proved that Charles Dickens’ classic story of a miser persuaded to change his ways through ghostly intervention can be skillfully told in just 26 minutes. Modern adaptation Spirited extends the tale to two hours by tacking on a riff on City of Angels/Wings of Desire and a bunch of songs. It’s a muddled mess that squanders the talents of its cast and the potential to update the story by moving too far from the themes that have made A Christmas Carol a holiday season staple.

Spirited imagines the Christmas Eve reckoning as an annual affair put on by an entire team of ghosts that act as a hybrid between Santa’s workshop and the experiments in redemption conducted in the latter seasons of The Good Place. Will Ferrell’s Ghost of Christmas Present has been putting off retiring for decades, fretting his work turning Karens into good neighbors hasn’t had enough impact on the world. When he encounters Clint Briggs (Ryan Reynolds), a PR consultant so resistant to self improvement he’s dubbed unredeemable, Present deems him an appropriate challenge for a career capstone.

One of the many problems with Spirited is that director/co-writer Sean Anders and co-writer John Morris can’t seem to decide who it’s for. The exuberant, earnest musical numbers make it seem like they’re trying to recapture the family-friendly good feelings of Ferrell’s 2003 film Elf. But Spirited has a striking amount of swearing and drug and porn references, and a discordantly dark spin on Tiny Tim that might give parents pause and comes across as totally inconsistent regardless of the audience. It namedrops Scrooged to acknowledge the last movie to do a modern, meta version of A Christmas Carol, but fails to deliver any of the elements that made that film great.

Case in point, Octavia Spencer plays Clint’s right-hand woman Kimberly, serving the same role as a stand-in for Scrooge’s clerk Bob Cratchit that Alfre Woodard’s Grace Cooley did in Scrooged. But Kimberly lacks Grace’s version of Tiny Tim, who provided one of Scrooged’s most powerful emotional payoffs. Spencer gets one of the best songs in the film as she mourns the moral compromises she’s made for upward mobility, but her character development ends there. Spirited never explains what she’s working for or what she wants, instead limiting her to a romantic arc with Present.

Clint repeatedly shifts the focus from his own malfeasance to delving into Present’s motivations. Almost all of that time feels wasted, as does everything involving the other ghosts that Present works with. Tracy Morgan’s humor is utterly wasted as a Ghost of Christmas Future who wants to add a catchphrase onto his regular schtick of pointing a bony hand to intimidate the wicked. Sunita Mani’s Past is entirely defined by thinking Clint is hot. Everyone else is just there to deliver lazy workplace comedy cliches or complain about being in a musical, a particularly weird choice since Spirited likely would’ve been better off just embracing the whimsy of its big tap numbers and heartfelt reprises.

The deflection also keeps the film from investigating who Clint is or the way his job engineering controversies affects the world and the people closest to him. Clint’s introduced turning a preference for real or plastic Christmas trees into a culture war issue through a rousing musical number reminiscent of The Music Man’s “Ya Got Trouble.” Tracing the impact of that campaign could have been a great running gag that would also bring home Clint’s Scroogelike ability to make Christmas miserable.

Perhaps the biggest misstep is utterly abandoning A Christmas Carol’s focus on wealth inequality.

Spirited draws on the extended backstory of Scrooge presented in the 1951 A Christmas Carol starring Alastair Sim, but doesn’t give the drama enough room to breathe before having Clint literally flee the scene of a traumatic memory so that the film can transition to another zany musical number. Clint’s budding bromance with Present makes him more likable than this character should be, and the writers have inserted an unnecessary younger brother just to let Clint off the hook for being a bad uncle to his late sister’s kid.

But perhaps the biggest misstep is utterly abandoning A Christmas Carol’s focus on wealth inequality even though it’s just as relevant today as it was in Dickens’ time. Every character in the film is either wealthy or a ghost that doesn’t need to care about money. The one person who does help the homeless is alternately seen as grudgingly doing the work or virtue signaling. Spirited utterly ignores A Christmas Carol’s message about generosity in favor of a far vaguer moral about being less of a jerk.

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Ferrell and Gosling do their best to bring the songs to life, but neither are particularly musically talented. Spirited’s music is undeniably catchy and the sets seem to have been imagined with an eye to the stage, as if the writers were hoping it would follow in Elf’s footsteps and become a Broadway musical. Perhaps that possible adaptation will allow some rewrites and better performances to redeem the film’s squandered potential.


Spirited attempts to follow in the footsteps of Scrooged as a modern, meta retelling of A Christmas Carol. But bombastic musical numbers cause tonal whiplash in a script pulled in too many directions. Even archetypes need some character development, and Spirited fails to make its happy ending feel earned.

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