But here’s the thing about Christmas tales: they’re often tired, based on tropes and themes that we’ve heard countless times, and bursting with cheesiness and sweetness that another film likely wouldn’t get away with any other time of the year. Spirited knows and acknowledges that we’ve heard this story before and attempts to do something new with this tried-and-true story. This approach doesn’t always work, but when it does, Spirited is a charming twist on a story we’ve all heard so many times before.
In the world of Spirited, the events of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” are an annual tradition. Marley and his team find a soul who needs saving and attempts to turn them around on Christmas Eve. Marley’s most trusted worker in the Ghost of Christmas Present (Will Ferrell), who has been doing this job for so long, he was eligible for retirement 46 seasons ago. When Present comes across Clint Briggs and discovers that his file lists him as “unredeemable,” he attempts his biggest challenge yet, as he tries to turn this Scrooge around.
Director/co-writer Sean Anders (Daddy’s Home, Instant Family) and co-writer John Morris craft an interesting world where Marley’s team works year-round to recreate the past and attempt to get to the core of a person in order to make them change. Alongside Present is of course the Ghost of Christmas Past (Sunita Mani) and Ghost of Christmas Yet-To-Come (voiced by Tracy Morgan and played by Loren Woods), who are each fun updates on these characters we’ve seen in so many other adaptations. But in Spirited, Anders and Morris also question the legitimacy of Dickens’ original story: can lasting change really be made in one night?
But the key to what makes this newest retelling work is the combination of Ferrell and Reynolds, both of whom are able to play to their comedic strengths, while also having the opportunity to do some solid dramatic work as well. This duo is delightful, and as they work together on Christmas Eve, it’s wonderful to watch how this relationship shifts. It doesn’t take long for Clint to investigate Present’s past, who he was when he was alive, and why he’s so dedicated to this position. It’s in this search for answers that Spirited comes up with its most interesting modification of Dickens’ story. But it’s also just fun watching these two work together and make each other better in the process, and Ferrell and Reynolds’ dynamic makes this story gratifying.
Yet Spirited isn’t without its problems. Anders and Morris’ screenplay often feels like its attempting too much, whether through exploring the many different threads and familial problems of Clint’s past that might lead to why he’s unredeemable, or shifting the Present-Clint relationship depending on what any specific scene needs, as opposed to giving them any sort of consistency. But despite its weaknesses, it’s the strengths that win over, as Anders and Morris are hitting on some quite lovely and surprisingly touching moments throughout the film that counterbalance the odd decisions.
Also odd is the choice to make this adaptation a musical. The songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land, The Greatest Showman, Dear Evan Hansen) aren’t the duo’s best, as they often exist only to pause the movie to a standstill and heighten the emotions that we’re already feeling. The entire cast holds their own, even though they aren’t professional singers, and Octavia Spencer, who plays Kimberly—Clint’s employee and Present’s potential love interest—absolutely kills it in her own songs. But the songs in Spirited sort of ruin the flow of the story for the most part. They’re not terrible additions, but they wouldn’t necessarily be missed either.
There’s also a sense of falseness throughout Spirited, which is somewhat understandable, considering much of this story centers around recreations of Clint’s past. But even when the film is trying to exist in the “real world,” it doesn’t feel “real.” For example, when Kimberly and Present go for a walk on Christmas Eve, the CGI backgrounds are noticeable and distracting, and the more realistic they’re supposed to be, the faker they feel. Similarly, when the film does break into song, the musical numbers almost feel reined in by the limitations of the seemingly-small sets. Again, these aren’t choices that ruin the film, but they are questionable decisions that can take the viewer out of the movie.
But even with some of its stranger choices, Spirited is predominantly an endearing film that has its heart in the right place. It’s easy to be cynical with new holiday films, especially with ones like Spirited that attempt yet another retelling of a story that has been told over and over. But there’s a—for lack of a better word—spirit to Spirited that is easy to get wrapped up in that lets you focus on what works and mostly ignore what doesn’t. Spirited knows they’re telling you a story you’ve heard countless times before, yet at least it imbues its version with enough heart and unique ideas to make this one worthwhile.
Spirited opens in theaters on November 11 and will be streaming on Apple TV+ starting on November 18.