SPIRITED (APPLE TV+) (2022)
SYNOPSIS: Imagine Charles Dickens’ heartwarming tale of a scrooge visited by four ghosts on Christmas Eve—but funnier.
Twenty years later, ‘Elf’ remains one of the favourite Christmas movies of all time, so it isn’t surprising that Apple has decided to cast Will Ferrell in its big-budget holiday blockbuster built on the same mix of child-like awe and adult-friendly gags. But if that is not reason enough to make you want to watch ‘Spirited’, how about the fact that it pairs Ferrell with one of Hollywood’s most charming actors, Ryan Reynolds?
As imagined by director Sean Anders, who co-wrote the script with his ‘Daddy’s Home’ collaborator John Morris, ‘Spirited’ sees Reynolds play the glib, opportunistic marketing magnate Clint Briggs, whom the Ghost of Christmas Present played by Ferrell takes a personal interest to redeem. Whereas Charles Dickens had envisioned the haunting by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future to be a one-off occasion, ‘Spirited’ reinvents it as an annual event overseen by the ringleader Jacob Marley (Patrick Page).
Despite Marley’s initial objections, Present is convinced that Clint is who they need to convert in order for their hauntings to truly make a difference in the world. Undeterred by the initial assessment that Clint is irredeemable, Present sets out with his colleagues Past (Sunita Mani) and Future (voiced by Tracy Morgan) to revisit the formative moments in Clint’s life, with the hope that hindsight will lend perspective to this ‘perfect combination of Mussolini and Seacrest’ and lead him to admit the error of his past and present ways.
Each of Clint’s life moments becomes a set-piece in and of itself, including his public breakup with ex-girlfriend Nora at a shopping mall and the death of his older sister Carrie whose daughter Wren he is now the legal guardian of; in particular, the latter matters because Wren’s decision to post an incriminating video of a schoolmate she is running against for class president will ultimately come not just to define the boy’s life but also Wren’s conscience.
Had ‘Spirited’ decided to be about Clint’s redemptive journey alone, it would probably be a lot more poignant; alas, it is too distracted for its own good, weaving in a subplot about Present’s own past as Ebenezer Scrooge, on the justification that Present was the other irredeemable to have successfully gone through the programme. Between Scrooge’s own dastardly ways and his unexpected romance with Clint’s right-hand woman Kimberly (Octavia Spencer), there is just too much going on for any of it to be emotionally compelling.
And so even though it clearly had that ambition, ‘Spirited’ falls short from a true Christmas classic, never quite finding enough heart to warm that of its audience. What it does well though is offer exuberant enough entertainment for two hours, thanks to several Broadway-worthy musical numbers penned by dynamic duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (from ‘The Greatest Showman’ and ‘La La Land’) and choreographed by Chloe Arnold that combine tap, hip-hop and jazz into some dazzling show-pieces.
To their credit, Ferrell and Reynolds are good company as unlikely bros, their repartee carrying the movie in between the numbers. Though neither are natural singers, both actors try their best at crooning and dancing, and demonstrate true showmanship from start to finish. Same goes for Spencer, who not only gets the chance to be a romantic lead in a movie but also the opportunity to show off her considerable pipes and makes good use of both.
True to its title therefore, ‘Spirited’ is mostly energetic through and through, even though it does lack that magical quality to be timeless. Indeed, it is no ‘Elf’ and hardly comes close, despite recruiting Ferrell for his first Christmas movie since then and roping in Reynolds for the ride. Like we said, its key flaw is that it really cannot decide whose story it wants to tell, resulting in a digressive narrative that has little resonance. At least though it is jolly and bouncy, and for the most part will leave you with plenty of seasonal good cheer..
Review by Gabriel Chong