Spirited, starring Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell, is an adaptation of A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens’s 1843 novella, a story which has been adapted on numerous previous occasions. Here, the ‘unique hook’ is that the story is told form the point of view of the ghosts. Less uniquely, it’s also a musical.
The story opens in the last moments of a haunting, with a bad neighbour, appropriately called Karen, redeeming herself from her previous pettily annoying, pedantic, ‘fetch me the manager’ behaviour. As in the original story, this has all happened on Christmas Eve.
After a short break for the festivities, the research for the following year’s ‘perp’ begins. But Ghost of Christmas Present (Ferrell), thinks that the ghost team can haunt someone more influential than the Vancouver hotel manager initially tapped for the ghosts’ future visitation.
The film’s opening is strong, establishing the conventions of this universe efficiently and with great fun. The ‘afterlife’ where the ghosts have their office is a much more fun version of contemporary corporate America, cloaked in a Dickens-esque aesthetic. The ‘Hall of the Redeemed’ contains Easter eggs galore, and we predict much use of the pause button to identify the great and good on display in the background.
The perp chosen: Clint Briggs (Reynolds), is an absolutely abominable human being – a sort of cross between an old school televangelist and a modern MLM marketeer, who has an all too effective trade in drumming up derision and hatred in the name of selling products.
Convinced by Present that redeeming this man would have a much larger ripple effect, and therefore a much greater benefit to society, the ghosts agree to change their plans for the year and make Briggs their mark for the following Christmas.
What follows is a montage of the months of preparation: think The Truman Show meets Santa’s workshop, as all the planning builds towards Christmas Eve, accompanied by range of cheery songs. As well as witnessing the Ghosts’ behind the scenes preparations, we also see moments in Clint’s year, which mostly revolve around barking orders, influencing influencers, and being a terrible uncle to his niece, Wren, an adorable child whose mother, Clint’s sister, had died some years before. The ghosts help the audience to keep up with all the various plot strands by explaining key points to each other as the story continues.
As the film continues through what should be the predictable haunting sequences, a fair few twists occur. Spirited is very self-aware, and this self-awareness often makes itself known through the actions of Clint, who realises, very quickly, that he’s in a version of Dickens story, and chooses to both throw himself into it, and to challenge everything, from the memories he is shown, to the ghosts’ own motivations. The narrative choices are somehow both surprising and utterly foreseeable, making for a narrative where you know what is coming, but can still be blind-sided by some genuinely shocking moments.
Whilst the whole endeavour is lot of fun, it’s not a perfect viewing experience. The elephant on the room of other Christmas Carol adaptations is touched upon, with Scrooged specifically refenced. But when considered in comparison with the legendary A Muppet Christmas Carol, this film fails to make the grade.
Whilst the entire cast appears to have had an amazing time making the movie, it’s fair to say that both Ferrell and Reynolds are channelling the spirit of Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia! in terms of vocal accomplishment. Almost all of the song are utterly forgettable, which is a problem in any musical – in order to gain a place in popular cultural history, the songs of a musical need to be memorable, and here, they just aren’t.
Despite a running time of only a fraction over two hours, the story feels slightly bloated. A romance sub-plot featuring the excellent Octavia Spencer could have been removed or heavily edited without the overall story losing out, but presumably this was included to off-set the level of bro-based masculinity that this film would otherwise exude.
In the days before streaming services this musical, which has an excellent and intriguing premise, would have had a cinema release, a subsequent video or DVD release, and would then have found itself a home on the BBC in the Christmas period, reshown each year until the end of your future children’s childhood. In the era of streaming services however, this film seems destined to flare brightly for a brief period of time, before falling into a back catalogue that fails to achieve the renowned it probably should.
This film is a fun attempt to create a knowing, metatextual, 2020’s version of the source material, and it makes a great attempt at making the story relevant to a social media fixated generation. However, the weakness of the musical element, and that lack of pace in the last forty minutes or so, make what should have been a joyous Christmas treat feel more like the turkey curry you eat on the day after Boxing Day – there’s nothing inherently wrong with it, but it’s just too much after too many other delightful incarnations of the same thing.
Feature Image Credit: Apple+ TV