A film review by Craig J. Koban December 1, 2022

SPIRITED j

2022, PG-13, 127 mins.

Ryan Reynolds as Clint Briggs  /  Will Ferrell as Ghost of Christmas Present  /  Octavia Spencer as Kimberley  /  Sunita Mani as Ghost of Christmas Past  /  Aimee Carrero as Nora

Directed by Sean Anders  /  Written by Sean Anders and John Morris
 

 

 

ORIGINAL FILM

It's highly fitting that Apple's new Yuletide musical comedy SPIRITED co-stars Will Ferrell, because this is seriously the Ron Burgundy of Charles Dickens adaptations.  

This umpteenth version of A CHRISTMAS CAROLE seems to be - throughout its punishingly long 120-plus minutes - screaming at viewers, "Hey Everyone, come and see how good I look!  Come and see how hard I'm trying to make you laugh and entertain you!!!"  

Director Sean Anders (the DADDY'S HOME series) has made one awfully weird take on Dickens' 1843 novella, which hopes to modernize his tale as a ruthless modern business satire (wait, Richard Donner's SCROOGED already did that decades ago) with song and dance numbers (the former being provided by the LA LA LAND team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, whose combined talents seem AWOL here) and, yes, with Ferrell being teamed up DEADPOOL himself in Ryan Reynolds.  All I could think about while enduring SPIRITED was (a) this is a truly dreadful, criminally unfunny, and wasteful take on a classic story and (b) Reynolds and Ferrell each received a $20 million salary to appear here.  Their combined salaries alone eclipsed the budget of the infinitely better Bill Murray helmed SCROOGED.  Obviously, the makers of SPIRITED spent all their money on talent, but not on the material. 

SPIRITED deserves a modicum of credit for trying to spin Dickens' iconic Christmas centered story into some new directions.  I mean, we've had everything from Murray to Muppet characters to Jim Carrey in motion capture form playing A CHRISTMAS CAROLE characters and Ebenezer Scrooge respectively in the past, which leaves SPIRITED in the challenging task of trying to mix things up a bit.  This is a musical, so there's that, but the one defining trait that sticks out here is the ghosts of Christmas are part of a larger spirit network - and haunting industry with far reaching impact - that targets a new selfish, but troubled soul every year, with Ferrell playing the Ghost of Christmas Present that has to tame Reynolds' big game media consultant that wants to squeeze every buck he can out of Christmas.  There's so much untapped potential in SPIRITED on top of the limitless potential for huge laughs with the pairing of Ferrell and Reynolds.  Shockingly, though, the two don't have much in the way of comedic chemistry, nor do they score any much merriment together, nor do they have any decent vocal range to make the songs come boisterously alive.  When a musical comedy ain't funny and fails in the music department then that's a big, big problem. 

 

 

Ferrell's Ghost of Christmas Present (goes by Present here) is part of that vast aforementioned underground spirit squad of other ghosts - with Yet To Come (voiced by Tracey Morgan) and Past (Sunita Mani)  - spending every Christmas season plotting their next "unredeemable" target to make noble minded and proper.  Present has been doing this work for what's revealed to be centuries and could retire on any given year, but seems driven to continue on.  He has one last client given to him in Clint Briggs (Reynolds), who's a higher up at media firm that takes great zeal in commodifying the holidays and spreading all forms of horrible misinformation online via social media.  In short, he's a Scrooge-like a-hole.  He's such an a-hole that when his cute little niece in Wren (Marlow Barkley) asks for his help on running for student body president he devilishly implores her to dig up any nasty dirt she can find on her opposing candidate, leak it online, and humiliate him (wow).  Clint's assistant, Kimberley (a terribly misused Octavia Spencer, looking bored and stiff here), seems broken down by her boss' unbridled enthusiasm to throw morals and ethics out the window on a daily basis.  Present makes it his one-ghost mission to redeem the unredeemable Clint, but things get complicated when the other two ghosts are put on the sidelines and Kimberley is able to see Present alongside Clint. 

The heavy borrowing of SCROOGED here is unmistakable, with Clint being essentially sewn from the same fabric of Murray's television network president that uses Christmas in whatever twisted way he can to put more money in his pocket and make others miserable in the process.  This does lead to one of very few funny lines in SPIRITED when Present - upon seeing Clint for the first time - describes him as "the perfect combination of Mussolini and Seacrest."  That's funny.  Also mildly funny - ironically enough - is the opening of the film that doesn't feature Ferrell and Reynolds on screen together at all.  It deals with the ghosts finishing up with their latest unredeemable client in Karen (Rose Byrne), a privileged woman whose reign of terror on her neighborhood sees her getting a taste of her own medicine.  It's a snarky opening, to be sure, and does a good job of setting up the particulars of this ghosting business.  It's clear from the get-go that SPIRITED is trying to honor the core of Dickens' tale while also subverting it all the same, which is fine enough, but the film gets into trouble very soon afterwards with the creative choices it makes.   

As for those creative choices?  Well, the big song and dance numbers, for starters.  They're all woefully dead on arrival because the choreography is stiff as board and the singing - especially by the two lead attractions - makes Pierce Brosnan in MAMMA MIA! sound like Pavarotti.  It shouldn't surprise anyone that Ferrell and Reynolds - despite some obvious effort - can't make any of these listless songs achieve true euphoric lift-off, but not helping matters either is that Anders behind the camera doesn't seem capable of giving this film some visual panache to make up for the mediocre singing and high school play musical worthy staging of the sequences.  The money - at least what they had left after paying Ferrell and Reynolds - seems to be on screen, yes, but SPIRITED is fundamentally bereft of magic and wonderment that these types of holiday genre films require.  And this film's premise is ambitious enough and there are times when the cast does go for broke in areas that they're clearly not trained for (sorry, Ferrell and Reynolds are capable on-screen funnymen, but singers...they are not), but SPIRITED can seem to hone in on any of its wildly divergent tones to good effect.  It's not a good musical and not a good satire of big business and the commercialization of Christmas.  Then when it tries to be sweet and dramatic - after being smugly broad and farcical  - the film seems to be betraying itself and falls flat on its face.   

And how on earth could the tandem of Ferrell and Reynolds not bring down the house here?  Attempts at large scale guffaws are mostly limited to dryly relayed punchlines, one liners, and lame sight gags, and throughout most of the picture Ferrell and Reynolds just seem to be going through the obligatory motions to nab their mighty big pay checks.  I wouldn't necessarily say that they're lazily phoning it in, but they're not stretched at all with the maudlin material here (that, and Reynolds is playing - yet again - another motormouth with a sarcastic quip for every occasion jackasses that are really, really starting to grow stale on me).  Plus, SPIRITED seems too reticent to make Reynolds' Clint a truly hateful cretin at the risk of alienating - I'm guessing - the star's brand and his loyal fans.  Clint is a dirty SOB, but more in a smart-alecky manner that doesn't make him fully detestable.  The character on the page is evil, but Reynolds plays him with that wink-wink charm that goes out of its way to remind viewers that he's still a good and likeable boy underneath that humbug facade.  One tiny subplot involving the ramifications of Clint's advice to his niece in terms of publicly shaming her opponent (shown in a Ghost of Yet To Come flashforward) manifests itself in a truly dark and never fully dramatically earned payoff that's met to shock.  I found it more grotesquely tone deaf and hopelessly out of place with the kind of wacky festive film SPIRITED is trying to be. 

This film unequivocally proves that a Christmas themed/Dickens inspired musical can't get by on the power of its stars or by being big hearted and enthusiastic.  Tackiness permeates SPIRITED to aggressive levels, and Ferrell and Reynolds never find a way of working fluidly together to help elevate the creative failures of this production, which are - as alluded to - many .  After 127 minutes and when the film finally - FINALLY! - faded to its end credits all I could ponder was that I wanted to see these two comedians together in a better film with a better laugh-a-minute script and one that didn't involve them pathetically trying to sing and dance.  SPIRITED is an incompetent misapplication of talent and resources on top of being too long, too overstuffed and too illogically engineered for its own good.  

And, yeah, just watch SCROOGED instead.  It's the same kind of Dickens adaptation, but done so much better. 

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