Producers: Sean Anders, John Morris, David Koplan, George Dewey, Will Ferrell and Jessica Elbau Director: Sean Anders Screenplay: Sean Anders and John Morris Cast: Will Ferrell, Ryan Reynolds, Octavia Spencer, Patrick Page, Sunita Mani, Loren Woods, Tracy Morgan, Joe Tippett, Marlow Barkley, Aimee Carrero, Andrea Anders and Jen Tullock Distributor: Apple+
There have been so many movies based on “A Christmas Carol” (the best, by far, remaining Brian Desmond Hurst’s venerable 1951 version with the inimitable Alastair Sim) that we’ve now reached the point where permutations of permutations outpace simple retellings. The “original” idea in this variant by writers Sean Anders and John Morris, with an assist from songwriters Benji Pasek and Justin Paul, is to mash together Bill Murray’s modernized “Scrooged” with Albert Finney’s 1970 musicalization of Dickens, with a touch of automated Santa’s workshop technology tossed in. The result is “Spirited,” a would-be Christmas perennial that will wilt pretty fast, thanks to its snarky adolescent tone, short-shelf-life pop culture references and prefabricated sentimentality.
The premise is that after the operation arranged by Jacob Marley for Scrooge back in the nineteenth century proved successful, Marley (Patrick Page) turned it into an annual event, in which a large staff chooses one misguided person to be targeted for visitation by the customary three spirits on Christmas Eve and taught to become better by the experience. It’s a laborious exercise that requires intense research and elaborate set construction to fabricate the individual’s past, present and probable future convincingly.
As the movie opens, the crew celebrates another victory in the reclamation of Karen (Rose Byrne), a Karen (get it?) who has been making her neighbors’ lives miserable but is now all apologetic and friendly. Marley has already chosen next year’s project—a bullying hotel manager—but on visiting the tyrant’s domain Present (Will Ferrell), the longtime Ghost of…, looking for a real challenge, prefers someone else—Clint Briggs (Ryan Reynolds), a snide, conniving marketing master in town to sell his services to a convention of Christmas tree growers whose wares are increasingly being supplanted by the artificial variety. In a big production number reminiscent of Harold Hill’s “Trouble,” Briggs rouses the conventioneers to take up a “War on Artificial Trees” that will build on the “War on Christmas” some folks have alleged is occurring, thus saving their bottom line.
Despite Marley’s admonition that Briggs has been categorized as unredeemable, Present, along with his ghostly colleagues—Past (Sunita Mani), who eyes the handsome Briggs lustfully, and Yet to Come (tall, robed Loren Woods, but voiced, Darth Vader style, by Tracy Morgan)—wants to go for the hard target.
It certainly seems an impossible job. Not only did Briggs stiff his former boss by stealing his clients, but his ultra-competent assistant Kimberly (Octavia Spencer) as well. And to show how horrible he can be, though he’s never been the family type Clint, prodded by his brother (Joe Tippett), agrees to help Wren (Marlow Barkley), the daughter of their dead sister Carrie (Andrea Anders) in her quest to win the student body presidency at her elementary school. He does so by ordering Kimberly to dig up dirt on Wren’s opponent, a sterling kid, and happily seizes on an old internet posting in which the boy made a tactless remark about his parents’ holiday meals for the poor. Mission accomplished.
Present tries his darnedest nonetheless, and in the process gets all googly-eyed over Kimberly, who’s ambivalent about facilitating Clint’s machinations. But his efforts go nowhere, because Briggs proves adept at turning the tables, challenging Present about his own past—something that leads to their returning to the nineteenth century, because Present started out as someone you’ll recognize—and his refusal to retire after many years of service. Rest assured, though, that things will end predictably well for them both, despite some pretty dark turns toward the close, including the script’s misguided reference to a suicide.
The exposition portion of “Spirited,” mostly consisting of banter between Ferrell and Reynolds, is pretty labored, not only because the latter’s characteristic rapid-fire smugness is getting old and Ferrell’s wide-eyed naiveté doesn’t work here as well as it did in “Elf,” but because the script is encumbered by a lot of contemporary references that aren’t terribly funny and are going to age quickly; there are also way too many wink-wink moments to signal to us that the makers are in on the joke (when one observer asks, “Why are they singing?” the answer is “Because it’s a musical”). (The flat pacing of Anders’ direction and Brad Wilhite’s editing is no help, either.) Page and Spencer fare somewhat better, though they both play one-note figures, and the rest of the cast get into the spirit of things. Cameos by Judi Dench and Jimmy Fallon fall flat.
The songs (and there are a good many) are hardly memorable—typical modern-day Broadway-esque numbers, with quasi-melodies that have a familiar feel and mostly nondescript lyrics; and while the stars manage to get by vocally, the strain often shows. The same is true of their dancing, though the athletic choreography by Chloe Arnold, in which massed groups stomp about and they can just be part of the ensemble, disguises their limitations. In musical terms the most successful sequence is probably “Good Afternoon,” presumably intended as a spoof of “Thank You Very Much” from “Scrooge,” which is based on the notion that, we’re told, the greeting was the nineteenth-century equivalent of “FU”—an example of the sort of mildly risqué material that’s common here, and will appeal to thirteen-year olds and adults with an immature streak.
“Spirited: represents an expensive proposition for Apple+, which has until now financed more modestly budgeted original movies. The production doesn’t have the glitz of major studio releases, or even of some of Netflix’s mega-movies, but it looks pretty good streaming, though the production design (Clayton Hartley) and costumes (Erin Benach) lack the highest degree of sumptuousness and, except in the dance sequences, Kramer Morgenthau’s cinematography is pretty pedestrian, and sometimes murky. The same is true of Sean Devereaux’s visual effects, which are okay but not all that impressive. Dominic Lewis’ background score hits the expected beats.
The result is a Christmas package that, to crib from a different holiday, is more trick than treat.