Spirited movie review: A fun Christmas Carol reinvention

Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell in "Spirited," premiering November 18, 2022 on Apple TV+.
Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell in "Spirited," premiering November 18, 2022 on Apple TV+. /

I will be the first one to admit that I’m sick and tired of Pinocchio, Cinderella, and A Christmas Carol adaptations. Every few years, studios come in with a “new take” on the classic tale that is essentially the same movie, but with newer actors. This year, we’ve gotten two Pinocchio movies in two months (though I hear that Guillermo del Toro’s vision of Carlo Collodi’s tale is one of the best animated movies of the year, and I would hope that it’s true). And now, we have another “spin” on A Christmas Carol, this one titled Spirited.

To its credit, I can’t deny that I thoroughly enjoyed myself watching this movie. It’s a fun, catchy, and amazingly memorable take on Charles Dickens’ classic, by turning the classic story on its head and subverting what audiences would think would be in A Christmas Carol. Is it flawed? Sure, and most of them arrive during its dreadful final act. But is it better than most “modern” adaptations of A Christmas Carol? Yes. Absolutely.

Spirited is flawed, but it is entertaining throughout

It’s mainly due to two factors: the impeccable chemistry Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds have on screen, and the film’s highly exuberant musical numbers. I have strong opinions on how Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have reinvented theatricality on film, for better (La La Land and Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile) or worse (The Greatest Showman and Dear Evan Hansen), but their songs work surprisingly well inside this flexible and theatrical world. There’s a great running gag that every instance of Clint Briggs’ (Ryan Reynolds) past, present, and future is set on an imaginative stage, by the Ghosts of Christmas Past (Sunita Mani), Present (Will Ferrell) and Yet-to-Come (Tracy Morgan).

It allows for filmmaker Sean Anders to craft extravagant musical numbers with a consistently moving camera from the great Kramer Morgenthau. There are times when the camera blocks unnaturally, especially when it has a tendency to smash zoom to focus on one performer. However, throughout most of the movie, the musical numbers are terrifically shot and lit, allowing us to see every ounce of the performers on screen, dancing joyfully to highly catchy Christmas tunes (particularly “That Christmas Morning Feelin'” that I can’t wait to listen to all Holiday season long when it drops on Spotify). Though Pasek and Paul’s songs have a tendency to have the same emotional beats (especially if you just saw Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile), they all work well here and exploit the talents of its stars brilliantly.

I especially enjoyed a song called “Good Afternoon,” with one of the wildest star cameos you’ll see in any movie this year. The song gives an interesting spin on Dickens’ classic tale, and could be the moment that makes or breaks the audience’s experience. I found it fascinating, but it didn’t deter my enjoyment throughout the rest of the movie. And it’s probably because Reynolds and Farrell are so fun to watch together. I haven’t enjoyed much of Reynolds’ recent works, having starred in a slew of movies that felt written by an AI bot (Red Notice, Free Guy and The Adam Project, all fine, but amazingly forgettable, pieces of content).

But Spirited seems like the first project he has done since Six Underground that works as a fun movie, with actual energy being put in front and behind the camera. Reynolds’ comedic timing is naturally funny here, and marries well with the quiet, and composed, performance Ferrell brings as the Ghost of Christmas Present, which is against what he usually plays as being extremely loud and silly. There are instances of that in a few scenes, but his performance is much more emotionally restrained, and pairs well with Reynolds’ consistent blabbermouth schtick.

They’re joined by Octavia Spencer, who is the film’s dramatic core as Kimberley, Clint’s assistant. She shares decent scenes of emotional levity with Ferrell, who starts to fall in love with her. It’s another interesting spin on A Christmas Carol, focusing on the ghosts instead of the “scrooge”-like character, which gives the ghosts more depth than the main character. But Anders and co-screenwriter John Morris are able to find a balance between the two characters, and establish a chemistry that’s amazingly fun to watch.

But it’s not a perfect movie. It’s far too long (127 minutes), and has a few reinterpreted scenes from A Christmas Carol that didn’t sit right with me, especially near its end. I won’t spoil it, but it felt particularly manipulative and egregious, and didn’t round up the ending in an emotional swell as the traditional Christmas Carol always does. The film’s ending is also terribly bizarre, and doesn’t feel like an earned conclusion for the two protagonists either. Though I appreciate Anders’ dedication in subverting every ounce of A Christmas Carol, while maintaining elements that fans of Dickens’ tale appreciates.

Because of this, Spirited works. The musical numbers are terrific, the songs are memorable, Reynolds, Spencer, and Ferrell are having a great time, and the reinterpretation of A Christmas Carol is interesting enough to have held my attention throughout. Was it needed? No, but it is certainly better than most re-hashed Christmas Carol tales we recently got. However, The Muppets Christmas Carol still remains the best derivative version of the tale we’ll ever get. Nothing will top it, even in fifty years from now. It’s that timeless.

Spirited releases in select theaters on Nov. 11, and will be available to stream on Apple TV+ on Nov. 18.

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