will ferrell is a multi-talented entertainer who loves to sing but too rarely gets the expansive opportunity for it on-screen. (We’ve heard the show-stopping and sincere performance of “Time to Say Goodbye” in “stepbrothers“or the hammy songs in Netflix’s”Eurovision” movie.) Thankfully, we now have the giddy song and dance of Sean Anders‘Christmas musical’Spirited,” which gives Ferrell’s tender tenor plenty of heartfelt scenes that allow him to be cartoonish but also musically sentimental. He is a genuinely good singer and always has been.
READ MORE: ‘Spirited’ Teaser Trailer: Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell Star In Apple TV+’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ Update
Ferrell plays the Ghost of Christmas Present (known here as Present) in this riff on Charles Dickens‘ A Christmas Carol that’s more innovative, irreverent, and fun to watch than the hallowed story usually is. It’s a little like “Elf” in how it mixes Christmas fantasy with modern-day moralizing, with a cutesy backstory. Here, the Dickensian story is real and part of an enterprise overseen by Jacob Marley (Patrick Page) and supported by Present, Past (Sunita Mani), and Yet-to-Come (Tracy Morgan). The opening sequence has the trio succeeding with a crotchety woman (Rose Byrne), affirming their company’s guiding belief that bad people can change.
And then Ryan Reynolds shows up for what has to be one of his best or least tedious characters in years. His character Clint Briggs is in the business of creating division and controversy. He gets a great introduction, a rousing number at a Christmas Tree Planter Association group that unveils a villainous plan that will support the group at the consequence of dividing the nation over real and plastic trees. Reynolds also has the singing and dancing chops while leaning into the stubborn smarminess (without being overly unlikable) he used to be known for. Reynolds might be the reason “Spirited” has a few too many winking jokes, but the flavor he brings fits for a production where dozens of people suddenly break out into song. Like Ferrell, he’s basically been priming himself for a musical like this for a while, and it’s a good fit.
Clint is considered by the Dickensian organization to be “Unredeemable,” but that doesn’t deter Present from wanting to change his heart to make him a nice person who does even a little bit of unselfish good. Some slack stakes emerge when Clint’s thoughts about humanity risk a long-damaging effect on young people: Clint uses his expertise to try to help his niece Wren (Marlow Barkley) win an eighth-grade school election by digging up dirt on her opponent, Josh. His assistant Kimberly (Octavia Spencer) finds a Tiktok that could ruin Josh’s campaign but also makes her question what she’s doing in this business of stirring hatred.
Clint is such a good manipulator he can even beat Dickensian mechanics—he thwarts the Ghost of Christmas Past with charms (Mani has fun in the role), and then he gets Present to have his own crisis about what Present wants. In this version, spirits can “retire” and go back to the real world to live their days as mortals, a choice that Present deeply considers. In the cluttered plotting by co-writers Anders and John Morris, this crisis also needs space for Clint, still needing his own Scrooge-like epiphany. But the chemistry can give you enough to focus on—it’s often fun enough just to watch Reynolds and Ferrell riff on each other and sometimes tap dance.
A lot of different charismatic pieces could help make “Spirited” a new Christmas movie mainstay, but the biggest could be its soundtrack. The film’s musical sequences boast numerous catchy songs from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (“La La Land”) and epic choreography by Chloe Arnold. Take the grandiose opening sequence, “That Christmas Morning Feeling,” which has a melody primed for a re-listen as soon as the song is done and is emboldened with a multi-stage gathering of twirling and tapping dancers to match Kramer Morgenthau‘s acrobatic camera moves. Later on, Octavia Spencer gets her own standout number, as her character Kimberly wonders if working for the emotionally craven Clint is worth the elevation of her career. The camera spins around her, and the dancers come alive before returning to work.
“Spirited” has been carefully made to constantly pop: even the transitions from different parts of Clint’s present and past are surprising (yanked through a door, dropped onto a slide) and just as rich and considered as the use of colorful lighting (like whenever a heavy use of green comes into play). As the movie goes between the past, present, and future, numerous set-pieces have their own distinct, memorable feeling, like when Present and Clint venture into the icy blue, slightly fuzzier days of his long-ago past. If this is what Hollywood musicals look like now, we’ll be just fine.
One of Ferrell’s big music sequences is saved for after the credits (“Ripple”), and it’s indicative of how the movie gets too big for its relatively simple but sweet premise. “Spirited” is over two hours, and it certainly feels that way about 30 minutes before it’s over. The emotional core just isn’t as fun or full as the flashier stuff going on around it, so “Spirited” loses momentum when it has to gear up some way to redeem Clint, leading to some cheesy dramatic lunges. But while “Spirited” doesn’t succeed with its biggest tugs at the heart, the sentiment of doing a little good for others comes through, with a catchy number out in the city’s streets to boot.
Director Anders has grown with his longtime writing partner from dorm room comedies “Sex Drive” to family fare (“Daddy’s Home,” “InstantFamily”). With “Spirited,” Anders proves himself a surprising filmmaker who has a lot more up his sleeves, especially if he can continue to maintain the verve and exciting eye that takes “Spirited” from one sequence to the next, whether there’s a musical number or not. And there’s still a bit of Anders’ previous jostling, irreverent language and humor in the mix, like a high-energy sequence here that runs amok with how “Good Afternoon” is actually some type of Dickensian “f**k you.” “Spirited” is one of those movies with numerous creative choices that feel inspired, not just by the holiday spirit in the lyrics but the desire to pull off a good show. When “Spirited” has so many of its ornate pieces in sync, it can be a joyous cinematic treat like very few others of past or present. [B+]