I doubt that “Spirited,” the new Will Ferrell Christmas musical now streaming on Apple TV+, will give people the same holiday feels as his stone-cold Yuletide classic “Elf,” but Ferrell and co-star Ryan Reynolds work as hard as Santa’s reindeers on Christmas Eve to spread goodwill.
In this modern twist on the 1843 novella “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens—it’s “like the Bill Murray movie and every other adaptation nobody ever asked for,” says Jacob Marley (Patrick Page)—the story focusses on the haunters, not the haunted.
For almost 200 years, under the guidance of Marley, the afterlife spirits, the Ghost of Christmas Present (Ferrell), Ghost of Christmas Past (Sunita Mani) and the Ghost of Christmas Yet-To-Come (voice of Tracy Morgan), scare one Scroogey type—a “perp” they call them—into changing their lives for the better.
“That’s what we do,” says the Ghost of Christmas Present, “we change a person into a better person, and then sing about it.”
Trouble is, after almost two centuries of the work—there’s a year-round research process before the actual haunting—G.C. Present wonders if he wants to continue transforming the lives of strangers. He could retire, get his gold watch, Sephora gift card and return to life as a mortal in present day, but he has his eye on one more client.
He wants to redeem the unredeemable. Clint (Reynolds) is a slick spin doctor who works for politicians and corporations, and, with help from assistant Kimberly (Octavia Spencer), digs up damning dirt on their competitors. Between them they’ve ruined more lives and careers than you can shake a Yule log at.
The charismatic but evil Clint—“He’s like the perfect combination of Mussolini and Seacrest,” says G.C. Present.—turns out to be a challenge. “So, out of all the people on the planet, murderers, people who thrown gender reveal parties,” he says, “I’m the guy you choose to haunt?”
As G.C. Present works to reform Clint, the specter finds himself falling in love and questioning his own path in the afterlife.
“Spirited” is worth the monthly Apple TV+ fee for the Dickensian duet “Good Afternoon” from songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Oscar-winners for “La La Land”). Based on the worst insult you could say to someone in 19th century London, it is a showstopper, funny and perfectly suited to the talents of Ferrell and Reynolds.
Both bring their well-established personas to the film. Ferrell’s finely crafted goofiness contrasts with Reynolds’s sardonic character. They’re not exactly Hope and Crosby, but, as funny, all-singing-and-dancing combos go these days, they’ll do. They have great chemistry and riff off one another in a jaunty, good-natured way. It’s lighthearted, very aware—they often break the fourth wall to comment on what is happening in the scene—stuff that updates the 179-year-old story with subplots about the dangers of on-line life in addition to the more traditional themes of the importance of forgiveness, generosity and compassion.
“Spirited” owes a debt not only to “A Christmas Carol” but also, in its modern take, to “Scrooged,” the 1988 Bill Murray movie that shares the same DNA. Like “Scrooged,” “Spirited” finds a way to make an old story, feel fresh and that is its biggest gift to the audience.