We often let the honeymoon period of Ebenezer Scrooge’s transformation define the tale of A Christmas Carol. But what tends to get lost in the mire is the complexity that comes with total change. Movies love to convince us, usually erroneously, that characters can turn from bad to good in 90 minutes. Traditionally, they’ve treated characters as black or white, although recent years have seen the preponderance of the gray protagonist and even the gray villain.
Taking one of the greatest and most timeless pieces of fiction ever, Spirited adapts, and sequelizes, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for this new era of “gray” characters. It poses the question of whether someone like Scrooge would have continued to remain good even after his honeymoon period was over. You could apply this hypothetical thinking to countless old tales (e.g., Would Romeo and Juliet have remained in love had they lived?), but we’ve always chosen to put faith in the context established by the authors who’ve written them.
In Spirited, the character redemption process is led by a grandiose operation that happens each year to one lucky human around Christmastime. In the afterlife, Jacob Marley (Patrick Page) leads a crack team of individuals in charge of turning one bad apple into a redeemed soul. As each one of the three Ghosts (either Christmas Past, Present, or Yet-to-Come) is out in the field, he or she talks with the team back at headquarters to stage scenes on the fly, just like Viggo Mortensen’s character in The Truman Show. They’ve been at it for a couple centuries now.
Will Ferrell plays the Ghost of Christmas Present, a spirit nearing retirement after some 200 years of service. For his last go-round, he has his eyes set on Clint Briggs (Ryan Reynolds), a highly touted media consultant who essentially serves as a conniving PR manipulator. In one instance, he’s hired to help boost authentic Christmas tree sales by contriving a social media narrative that pits real and fake tree buyers against one another. However, his schemes spread to the entertainment industry and politics as well.
To enhance the reverie, Spirited also adds eleven musical numbers, written by the in-demand songwriting duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land, The Greatest Showman). It’s rare for a musical to be without any duds, but in Spirited, there are truly no lowlights. Several of the tunes are also complemented with magnificent choreography from Chloe Arnold. The finale, “That Christmas Morning Feelin’,” is a particular showstopper as the ensemble gets involved, singing in the streets and on high-rises.
A few of the songs sound like numbers from similar musicals, but entertaining is entertaining, and the lyrical content is ultra-specific to the content of the film — a quasi-parody of musicals in the first place. In music, it’s a truism that a good song will shine through despite who’s singing it. Ferrell, Reynolds, and Spencer all do great, but none of them are true singers in their own right, which just proves how these tunes are able to transcend the talents performing them, especially “The View From Here” and its reprise.
Sean Anders (Daddy’s Home, Instant Family) directs, as well as co-writes (with John Morris), establishing a unique blend of comedy and drama. Spirited isn’t a straightforward joke-fest like most of Ferrell and Reynolds’ previous work and favors levity more than it does comedy; it asks us to smile more than it asks us to laugh. The jokes just exist as a byproduct of the tone and never become irredeemably irreverent.
This is also the first time in a long time — or maybe ever — that we can almost forget we’re watching Will Ferrell on screen. While Reynolds has occasionally showcased his range in the past, assisted by his sympathy-filled dancing eyebrows, Ferrell is almost always Ferrell. Yet here, he seems like he’s actually being challenged by the material. Aside from having spectacular chemistry with his co-lead, the actor does a surprisingly great job fluctuating between comedy and drama, holding onto the latter when he needs to without ever ruining the moments with a smirk. He, like the film, never loses his composure for the sake of comedy.
Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is all about letting the audience empathize with the antagonist through the crafty way the story is told. Published in 1843, 52 years prior to H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, it’s perhaps the first example of time-travel in fiction.
Much in the same way, Spirited takes you on a ride with its own narrative, adding to the themes, diverting in beautiful ways, and snowballing with energy towards an astounding final act. It gets existential in the way you’d expect a modern-day fairy-tale interpolation to be, while relating the idea of “grayness” to its admonishment of cancel culture. Most surprisingly, the film takes a spiritual angle to the abstract idea of forgiveness and harvesting growth; in the end, it’s not about proving that you have changed but in guaranteeing that you’ll continue to try, even if you know that death — or even life — is knocking at your front door.