Musical comedy Spirited struggles to find a fresh take on A Christmas Carol

click to enlarge Musical comedy Spirited struggles to find a fresh take on A Christmas Carol
It turns out musicals tend to hire great singing actors for a reason.

It's the holiday season, so there's no shame in putting out yet another take on Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. The classic story has been enacted by everyone from Patrick Stewart and Albert Finney to the Muppets and Mickey Mouse, and it's proved durable for a reason. The best versions, led by the superb 1951 film starring Alastair Sim, treat Dickens' material with respect, embracing the hokey but enduring tale of a miser who learns generosity over the course of a single magical night.

So why do the makers of Spirited seem so ashamed to be participating in this beloved tradition? The musical comedy starring Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds is yet another take on A Christmas Carol, complete with a Scrooge-like figure who's taught humility by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. Yet director and co-writer Sean Anders has his characters snark their way through the story, sneering at the concept even as they go through the motions of the familiar journey.

Spirited is also a full-scale musical, with Broadway-caliber numbers from renowned songwriting team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Dear Evan Hansen, The Greatest Showman). Anders undercuts this aspect as well, even as he stages some lively set pieces with vibrant choreography by Chloe Arnold. Just as cynical marketing consultant Clint Briggs (Reynolds) scoffs at the well-worn tropes of the speech delivered by ghostly Jacob Marley (Patrick Page), so too do multiple characters groan each time the telltale notes of a new song begin. If the movie itself thinks that both A Christmas Carol and musicals are a waste of time, there's no reason for the audience to feel any differently.

Anders and co-writer John Morris attempt to subvert expectations by turning the emotional stakes back on the ghost of Christmas present (Ferrell), who faces a severe challenge in getting Clint to focus on his inner growth. Clint, who's an expert at manipulating audiences for his political and corporate clients, sees that Present (as he's called) has doubts about his calling, and longs for something more than forcing jerks to change their ways every Christmas. Even as Clint witnesses the havoc he's wrought in his life by his selfish and inconsiderate behavior, he forces Present to face his own inadequacies.

Like too many modern family-friendly blockbusters, Spirited takes a mystical, unexplained literary concept and turns it into a rules-filled bureaucracy, so the process of haunting and influencing a curmudgeon has become codified and replicable. There is an entire afterlife department dedicated to these yuletide visitations, complete with meetings, presentations and support staff. Present is one of these agents, and after decades of service, he's been offered the chance at "retirement," to be granted a human life back on Earth.

Clint spots Present eyeing Kimberly (Octavia Spencer), Clint's morally conflicted second-in-command, and he seizes on that crush to push Present toward retirement in order to avoid his own moral reckoning. Of course, both men will learn their requisite lessons and become better people, although neither outcome is particularly convincing. Reynolds plays the same snide know-it-all as usual, and Spirited would have been more entertaining if it were just A Deadpool Christmas Carol.

Ferrell and Spencer bring a bit more sensitivity to their parts, but their romance is as underwhelming as the burgeoning friendship between Clint and Present. Pasek and Paul's energetic, catchy songs are underserved by the merely passable singing from the three leads, and the comedy is too gentle to have any real bite. With past films like Daddy's Home and Instant Family, Anders has specialized in combining limp humor with unearned sentiment. Spirited is a similar noncommittal mush, a brightly colored package without much worthwhile inside. ♦

Two Stars Spirited
Rated PG-13
Directed by Sean Anders
Starring Will Ferrell, Ryan Reynolds, Octavia Spencer
Streaming on Apple TV+

A Christmas Story @ Garland Theater

Tue., Dec. 13, 7:15 p.m.
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