Christmas season has arrived yet again, and a slew of Christmas movies and television have arrived on the scene. In 2019, Apple won the rights to a movie after a competitive bidding war, one written and created by Sean Anders and John Morris. Will Ferrell was slated to star in the movie, and Ryan Reynolds was cast opposite him in the other leading role. In November 2022, the movie was finally released under the name Spirited. Anders, who previously directed Daddy’s Home, was the one to direct the movie. It was released in theaters first, then would make its way onto Apple TV+’s streaming platform in time for the holiday season.
Spirited is based on the Charles Dickens novel A Christmas Carol, which has found its way into popular culture throughout the years in multiple different forms. The novel, released in 1843, told the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a frugal, lonely man who does not attempt to have relationships with anyone. One night, he is visited by the ghost of his old business partner, the Ghost of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. There is a big task at hand for him: to make him a more appreciative person, which does eventually end up happening by the end of the novel. The novel made waves when it was first released in the 1800s, and its influence still reaches far and wide today.
However, this movie tries to provide an entirely new take on a classic tale. Will Ferrell stars as the Ghost of Christmas Present, while Reynolds is Clint Briggs, a social media maven with deep-rooted issues and an attitude problem. They are joined by Octavia Spencer as Briggs’ assistant, Kimberly, and Patrick Page as Ferrell’s boss. Sunita Mani and Loren G. Woods are the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Yet To Come, while there are guest appearances by Judi Dench and Jimmy Fallon. With an original soundtrack, this movie aims to stand out from the rest of the Christmas releases this year.
A Man Resists Dickens’ Classic Tale
Charles Dickens’ classic novel A Christmas Carol finds a completely new life in Spirited. In this adaptation, the Ghost of Christmas Present has a task to do. Each year, one twisted soul on Earth must be picked by the spirits of Christmas. The end goal of this task is that by the end, they must learn to change their dark, wicked ways and become a person that is kinder to those around them. The Ghost of Christmas Present (Ferrell), who has been eligible for retirement for many decades now, continues to move through his job, but this year he has made a major mistake. The man he chooses this year is Clint Briggs (Reynolds), a New York media consultant who has worked with a wide variety of well-known people, including American presidents. His company specifically thrives on chaos and conflict, purposely spreading misinformation to benefit his client base.
In the words of Present, he is “perfect” for being picked that year. However, Clint is deemed unredeemable in the eyes of Jacob (Patrick Page), the one in charge of the afterlife, and Present and his team have a tough task ahead of them. After a full year of research and preparation to take on the job, the time finally comes to confront Clint and try to make him change his ways. The future of many people globally relies on this task, because if they succeed in their mission to make Clint into a decent human being, it will create a massive ripple effect due to his network and influence.
The plan goes into motion when Clint’s niece, the daughter of his late sister, comes into his office and tells him that she wants to run for Student Council President at her school. His niece wants help with the process, as she is running against another student, but Clint advises her to go on a smear campaign against her competitor where she should portray him as a “snot-nosed elite.” His assistant, Kimberly (Spencer), is assigned to do research against his niece’s classmate but moans in private about how she achieved the American Dream but lost something in the process: her dignity. As Present watches over all of this, he begins to doubt himself and the career he laid for himself.
Seeds of doubt were already in his mind, and Clint increasingly becomes more unredeemable in everyone’s eyes. The process of haunting him quickly goes awry, as Clint is not only seductive for some but also is willing to run away from his ghosts and turn the tables whenever he sees a need for his benefit. What ensues is a struggle between the two men and Clint continues to resist seeing the bad in himself, equipped with the occasional bad joke or poorly timed comedic beat, and Present trying to get the job done while chasing after what makes him happy. A strange romance is thrown into all of this, driving this movie into even weirder territory that it was swiftly approaching already.
Go Big or Go Home
Spirited tries too hard to be meta and over-the-top on purpose. When the characters first start singing after the opening scene, the newly arrived workers and assistants look at each other in confusion and say, “Why are they singing?” Another worker responds with the self-awareness that this is a musical. The songs are a little bit catchy but feel unnecessary. It is a twist on the original story and certainly is unique, but it also undermines the message of the movie and the original tale as a whole.
It becomes harder to take the movie seriously as Ferrell belts out a number about what retirement could look like as the camera pans over a statue claiming Dolly Parton is a soul they’ve reclaimed. And, perhaps, that is the entire point of the movie. It is a comedy that does not even try to pretend to be serious and brings new life to a story many people have heard repeatedly. There are some underlying threads about the state of current society, as Clint represents the media industry and what it takes to get to the top. His secretary, Kimberly, shows extreme regret at the kind of work she does for Clint, yet continues to work for him despite feeling guilty about what she does. At one point, she even tries to quit but is unable to do so out of fear for the future and what it holds.
Kimberly’s dilemma reveals a thread scattered throughout the movie. Every character has their problems, including Present and Clint, and cancel culture is very real in this world–Clint encourages his niece to participate in it to ruin her competitor’s chances. With the star power this movie has throughout, expectations would be high about the quality of it. It unfolds like a Reynolds and Ferrell film, even utilizing the brand of humor these two are known for throughout their careers. A musical comedy about Christmas? Sounds exciting, especially if it is in the vein of Anna and the Apocalypse.
However, the musical elements feel forced, feeling like they are just here to make the movie seem more comedic. At one point, Present gives up mid-song and shrugs his shoulders after being told not to sing by his supervisor, which seems to be the vibe of the entire movie. Why even are they singing? It is a mystery to the characters as well. Every number seems to be extravagant, with many characters belting out big numbers with a lot of backup dancers. Spirited fails in the game of finding balance with its music and fails to distinguish itself not only as a Christmas movie but as a musical as well.
But, unfortunately, Spirited feels like it does not have a lot of spirit contained in its story. Both Clint and Present are working in a corporate environment where they are leading figures, and while Clint is pretty happy in his position, he probes Present and reveals that his job might not be making the difference he thinks he has done. Between this story and the identity crisis, the music seems to be having–is it a modern musical? Or a classical one?– it becomes an elaborate, fragmented mess. The big twist is revealed early on, making the journey a long and unnecessary one.
Spirited is available to stream on Apple TV+ as of November 18, 2022.