Released: 18th November
Seen: 23rd November
Of all the stories ever written, it’s a fair bet to say one of the most adapted is Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol. Its simple story of some asshole being visited by three ghosts in order to learn to be a better person is so malleable that it can be shoved into almost any intellectual property (like Blackadder, Mickey Mouse or Mr. Magoo) or be told in various ways, from the straight forward versions to more meta interpretations like The Man Who Invented Christmas… of course, every version pales in comparison to the one that they did featuring the Muppets back in 1992 but hey, they keep churning them out because it’s pretty hard to screw up A Christmas Carol.
Spirited is another film following the classic story, the asshole who gets visited by three ghosts this time is Clint Briggs (Ryan Reynolds). Clint is a media consultant who has a habit of creating controversy to get what he wants, which for some reason makes him the perfect specimen to receive the three ghosts treatment. Turns out that this treatment is doled out to one person every year, this year Clint has been chosen by The Ghost of Christmas Present (Will Ferrell) to be visited by the ghosts and so begins the standard haunting… or it would if Clint was able to go along with the proceedings instead of wanting to dive more into the Ghost of Christmas Present’s own past. What follows is a 2-hour long musical discussion about how possible change actually is and the actual effects of living a life dedicated to just being a controversial asshole.
In terms of adaptations of A Christmas Carol, Spirited is surprisingly pretty good considering how many times this territory has been trodden before. While a few things have been mildly changed, like the Tiny Tim analogue in this being a kid in Clint’s niece’s class who she’s running against for class president, structurally it’s just doing Christmas Carol and it does that pretty well. It really only deviates from the classic story in one key way that involves the Christmas Present character, but even that deviation is in itself a reference to the classic story that they cleverly disguise as a shocking revelation so it’s fair to say that Spirited is aware of how well the audience knows the source material.
Spirited’s idea of an entire company in the afterlife that’s dedicated just to pulling this off (one that openly admits they’re stealing from Dickens, because this film is fairly meta and isn’t gonna bother pretending it’s doing something original) is honestly one of the better additions to the general plot of the film. It lets the three ghosts have some kind of personality outside of their standard archetypes, gives everything a bit of a grander scope and allows stage legend Patrick Page to do his Jacob Marley character for more than just a single scene which in general is a total win. It also creates a fun set of visuals for some chase sequences, since this setup means that they can just run between past, present and future randomly for a few quick gags.
Spirited’s addition of basically looking at how one puts together a haunting like this does severely add to the runtime, as does the musical numbers that are… OK? It’s very basic Pasek and Paul stuff, the La La Land/Dear Evan Hansen guys aren’t exactly breaking new ground here. If you’ve heard their work before then you know the kind of music that you’re going to get, your tolerance for it may vary but at least Spirited’s music is mostly fine. Sure Reynolds, Ferrell and the rest of the cast aren’t the most amazing singers but the music is clearly written to match their specific skill levels and for the most part, it’s fine. Some numbers even rise to a level of almost great, the best being Good Afternoon which is basically an entire song that finds a polite olden time way of saying “Go fuck yourself” and really leans hard into the comedic charm of Reynolds and Ferrell.
Indeed, Spirited is at its best when it just lets the charm of the two leads carry everything. For a while now Will Ferrell’s usual schtick had grated on me to the point where seeing his name was cause for an involuntary shudder to run through my spine but in this film, he actually tones it down and is generally quite charming and funny, only using his loudness bit in a few moments where it might actually have some kind of impact. Meanwhile, Ryan Reynolds is doing what you expect Ryan to do, again it’s a little more controlled than normal but that standard Reynolds style of comedy is still a draw for a reason. Together they have some pretty great chemistry, bouncing off each other both musically and comedically with a flair that makes the entire film quite enjoyable.
The thing that really holds the film back from just being great and keeping it to the level of ‘good enough’ is that despite it mostly following a fairly simple story, it throws in so much excess stuff like an entire romance subplot for Christmas Present (which teams him up with a criminally underused Octavia Spener… underused because it’s Octavia Spencer, she should just be in every frame of the film) or the aforementioned stuff about Present’s own past or even the story about the class presidency. Elements of all these excess storylines do work on some level, but they also cause the film to drag and distract at least somewhat from the central plot. It’s overcomplicated, which is not good for this specific kind of story.
It’s also a little hard to say that anything about Spirited is particularly essential, with so many adaptations of this story, the changes that this one makes aren’t enough to elevate it above the rest. It sort of sits in the middle, being enjoyable enough to kill a few hours and enjoy a couple of fun performances but it’s not going to stick in the memory for that long. It’s certainly a fun take, but it’s not a unique or exciting take on the classic tale.
Spirited coasts by on charm and enthusiasm, throwing out some ideas that could be interesting and having enough moments to make for a decent time but never elevating the material much above the original text. It’s not bad, there’s still a fair amount of fun to be had here, a lot of good laughs and some songs that are admittedly well performed by a cast not known for their musical abilities but considering this might be the millionth time this specific novel has been adapted, it doesn’t have enough to push it above just OK… but sometimes, just being OK is just enough.