For those wondering who would build a giant holiday musical-comedy around Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds, the “produced by Will Ferrell” credit provides a helpful clue. “Spirited” tries turning “A Christmas Carol” on its head, and while it’s big and boisterous, the movie (hitting theaters before Apple TV+) isn’t consistently irreverent enough to feel like much more than a streaming stocking stuffer.
Directed and co-written by Sean Anders (“Daddy’s Home”) with songs by the “La La Land” team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, “Spirited” certainly has a big, Broadway-tinged feel, while shrewdly surrounding its leads (not primarily known for their song-and-dance moves) with hordes of people accomplished in doing both.
The playful tone, however, oscillates between self-referential nods to the incongruity of people suddenly bursting into song and holiday-movie sentimentality, when either a more bare-knuckled commitment to satire or an unabashed embrace of its sappiness would be in order.
Of course, playing with Charles Dickens’ oft-told tale brings a lot of shorthand to the proceedings, with Ferrell as the Ghost of Christmas Present, who stumbles upon Reynolds’ fast-talking Clint Briggs, a media consultant introduced trying to commoditize Christmas. Present identifies him as a candidate to become their next “perp,” offered a Scrooge-like shot at redemption. Never mind that Clint is described as being a lost cause, or “unredeemable,” as he’s called in one of the songs that croons that word over and over.
Reynolds thus finds himself portraying an oily character we’ve seen him play many times before – a variation on his “Deadpool” smart-alecky-ness – as Present struggles to tame him, while taking an interest in Clint’s top employee (Octavia Spencer), who spends more time wrestling with her conscience about their work than her boss does.
Present’s team also includes the unexpectedly randy Ghost of Christmas Past (Sunita Mani) and Future (voiced by Tracy Morgan), who gripes in private moments that all he gets to do is point.
If only “Spirited” didn’t in essence keep tap dancing on its own punchlines, given how well people know the underlying Scrooge tale, which has given us both dark revisionist versions (see FX’s Guy Pearce movie) and broader parodies like “Scrooged.” The only benefit to that, actually, is that the waffling makes the few really good jokes stand out, like Present describing Clint as “the perfect combination of Mussolini and Seacrest.”
Ferrell (who pads his “Elf”-ish Christmas-movie resume) and Reynolds are perhaps not surprisingly more adept with the comedy than the singing and energetically choreographed dance numbers, though they’re perfectly adequate on that score, and seem to be having a grand time doing it.
Whether viewers will have that good a time is another matter. Because ultimately, “Spirited” doesn’t prove distinctive enough to truly separate it from the annual glut of holiday fare, serving as a nod to the past that’s a passable way to kill time in the present but which probably doesn’t augur much of a future.
“Spirited” premieres November 11 in select US theaters and November 18 on Apple TV+. It’s rated PG-13. Disclosure: My wife works for a unit of Apple.