At this point, children are born into this world with the story of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol encoded within their DNA. I would wager that there is not one person in this world who doesn’t know the story of Ebeneezer Scrooge, the three ghosts, and Tiny Tim and his equally teeny wooden crutch, who has been in desperate need of a Halls honey-lemon cough drop since 1843.
Dickens’ novella has been adapted roughly seven billion times, with each year bringing us two-to-20 more iterations. A Christmas Carol is in the public domain, which means anyone can adapt it freely—as faithfully or loosely as desired—without any of those pesky copyright restrictions.
One of the year’s newest (and certainly its most obnoxious) is Spirited, a flashy, big-budget holiday musical that kindly offers a newer take on a story as old as mold. In case you couldn’t tell it was a musical, the film’s stars, Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds, pose on the poster in a way that can only be described as “menacingly Broadway.” Judging by the art alone, the two look like a couple of demented Newsies that were cut from the cast and are stomping their way into your home for a dose of singsong-y revenge. Unfortunately, my friends, Spirited is a fate worse than that.
The film stars Ferrell as Present (as in “Ghost of Christmas Present”), a spirit who has been heading up the hauntings in the afterlife for countless Christmas seasons. This year, he’s tasked himself with an “Unredeemable,” a scoundrel so wicked that even the hierarchy of the hereafter has no faith in him: Ryan Reynolds. Here, Reynolds takes on the daunting task of playing his millionth smarmy huckster, a public relations shit-stirrer named Clint Briggs. Clint is as determined to charm his way around Present’s Christmas Eve haunting as Present is to successfully haunt Clint into changing his ways. This strife, of course, results in song.
While Spirited is an admirably ambitious new take on a familiar story, it fails to use all of the money and star power thrown into it to elevate itself beyond the recycled adaptations dumped on us every year. While their performances are stunningly filmed, the songs themselves are largely unmemorable. Outside of its musical hook, Spirited is consumed by its desire to thrust Dickens’ story into the modern day, to become an instant classic. So consumed, in fact, that the film forgets to make its painfully watered-down take on cancel culture and technological saturation funny at all. The result is an unpleasant and bloated two-hour holiday musical that squanders its potential right out the gate.
Spirited wants us to know from its start that this isn’t your grandpa’s (or great grandpa’s…or great-great grandpa’s) Christmas Carol. And what better way to illustrate the fact that this is a modern adaptation than opening on a reductive Karen joke that stopped being funny the minute the internet got ahold of it over two years ago? Yes, these are the types of people that Present has to work to redeem these days: online trolls and public nuisances. But at least he’s good at it! All of Present’s time haunting humans to change them for the better has made him eligible for retirement, which is another shot at life on Earth as a human himself. With that tantalizing offer, Spirited takes both a firm stance on reincarnation and asks the question that lingers through its runtime: Why is Present so afraid of getting his humanity back?
To buy some time from his boss’ insistence on accepting the retirement package, Present takes on Clint, who has been busy waging a war between those who buy fake Christmas trees and those who spring for the real thing as a tactic to boost sales for tree farmers. Clint is very good at his job, as we learn in a dazzling number where he sings about all of the ways he can manipulate good, honest people into throat-lunging nastiness. Working alongside him is his faithful assistant Kimberly (Octavia Spencer), who is in charge of digging up all of the dirt for Clint to hurl at anyone his clients pay him enough money to.
But this Christmas, Kimberly is finally having a crisis of conscience, which is compounded by Clint’s request for her to find information that will cancel an eighth grader running against his niece for class president. With his most loyal employee in flux, and his malevolence finally coming to bite him in the ass, it’s the perfect time for the spirits of Christmas Past (Sunita Mani), Present, and Future (Loren G. Woods, voiced by Tracy Morgan) to pay him a visit. The Spirits have been doing this for centuries, but even the powers of the afterlife are no match for the Olivia Pope of Canadian scandal-making.
From there on out, things fall into place as they do in most Dickens adaptations, with a few detours. Spirited seems keen on resting on its “twist” that comes halfway through the film, despite being blatantly obvious within the first five minutes. The twist sets up some interesting ideas about the questionable nature of humanity’s “inherent” goodness; sadly, they’re tossed into the slushy brown snow by the film’s conclusion.
Whenever the film gets close to becoming an interesting dissection of Dickens’ view of morality through a modern lens, it abandons any true meaning for lame, outdated punchlines. Spoiling who plays the Karen at the beginning of the film would ruin one of Spirited’s rare moments of fun, but I will say that whoever made it happen deserves coal for Christmas. Spirited is filled with inane cameos and cultural Easter Eggs, put in place to try to distract audiences with shiny pop culture asides to make them forget that what they’re watching is ultimately drivelous nonsense.
The film’s musical numbers act as the same kind of distraction. They’re loud, turbulent, and contemptible—the kind of fare you shuffle your parents off to during a trip to New York that will blow their eyebrows off with sheer spectacle and nothing else. And in case you were just hoping for some Christmas musical escapism, prepare to tear your hair out when you hear a lyric about the pandemic. For what it’s worth, Ferrell and Reynolds are both up to the task and do a great job of holding attention in their numbers, especially when they’re singing together. None of these tunes, however, are destined to be holiday classics.
But the best takeaway is Octavia Spencer’s lovely song and its couple of small reprises. It’s the one song that manages to actually be affecting, thanks to another committed performance from one of our most gifted actresses. It sure is unfortunate how many times Octavia Spencer has had to hold an entire production on her back—can we crowdfund a Christmas gift certificate to Miraval for her or something?
If only Spirited could be as dedicated to itself as its actors are. Some practical effects and expansive sets would make the film feel less like a poorly adapted stage-to-screen production. There are green screens about as convincing as those in And Just Like That…—which is to say, not at all. It’s hard to escape the notion that Spirited would like to be as instantly iconic of a holiday film as Ferrell’s Elf (we don’t talk about Daddy’s Home 2!), but Buddy the Elf stomped through the goddamn Lincoln Tunnel. There’s no reason for every scene here to look like it was filmed in a room with nothing but green blankets hanging from the walls.
By the end of Spirited’s whopping 127-minute runtime, I was absolutely exhausted. As a lover of holiday films good and bad, I never say no to a Christmas movie. But Spirited has broken my spirit. At one point, Ferrell has a big number where he wonders if he’s unredeemable, and I’d have to say that making me detest a Christmas movie—a nearly impossible task for a flamer as festive as me—answers that question with a resounding yes.
The film gets some points for acknowledging its own uselessness in the script, referring to itself as “another adaptation nobody asked for.” But the desperation bleeding from every frame of Spirited reeks like old, hardened fruitcake. Somehow, it manages to take an original spin on the single most adapted public domain story and flush it down the toilet, singing a solemn tune the whole way down.