At the start of the school year, the superintendent for our district sent out an email that basically said, “Please be nice. Stop yelling at our teachers.” Last week I got a similar email from our doctor’s office that used a lot of words to say “Please be nice and stop yelling at our front office staff.” You don’t need me to tell you that the one-two punch of Trump and the pandemic has unleashed an angry rhetoric into our daily lives. People’s fuses are short and basic kindness and human decency are in short supply. It’s not good. So Spirited, with its message of redemption, changing our behavior and doing a little good, arrives at the perfect time. Who better to tell us to start being nice than a singing and dancing Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell?
Spirited is the first of this season’s two high-profile retellings of the Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol (Netflix also has an animated film coming your way this December). Ferrell, already a holiday staple due to the 2003 classic Elf, stars as the Ghost of Christmas Present. Present has a lot in common with Buddy the Elf, marveling at the use of indoor plumbing and “newfangled modern mouth kisses.”
Each Christmas Eve, he and his fellow ghosts—the Ghost of Christmas Past (Sunita Mani) and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (voiced by Tracy Morgan and played by former NBA player Loren Woods)—pick one person to haunt, one person to give a chance to turn their life around and start being nice. Marley (Patrick Page) oversees the extremely well-staffed operation.
This year’s pick is Clint Briggs (Ryan Reynolds), a high powered PR executive with no scruples. There’s no depth he won’t sink to. When we first meet Clint, he’s stirring divisiveness between those who own an artificial Christmas tree and those who own a real one with the song “Bringin’ Back Christmas.” “Feed that hate,” he exclaims.
“He’s the perfect combination of Mussolini and Seacrest,” Present marvels.
Clint’s beloved older sister Carrie (Andrea Anders, sister of the film’s director, Sean Anders) passed away, leaving behind her only daughter Wren (Marlow Barkley), now in 8th grade. When Wren seeks Clint’s advice about running for student council, Clint asks his second in command Kimberly (Octavia Spencer) to do opposition research on Wren’s opponent. There’s nothing Clint won’t do, including trying to destroy a middle schooler.
Some might say he’s unredeemable. But Present wants to try to get Clint to turn his life around. “We are in the business of change,” he announces at the top of the film. But Clint can’t believe he’s been chosen: “Out of all the people on the planet, murderers, racists, people who do gender reveal parties, I’m the person that you are going to haunt?”
As Spirited progresses, Present realizes Clint might help him as much as he might help Clint. But who really cares about the somewhat convoluted plot? Let’s talk about the singing and dancing: There is so much singing and dancing in this movie. I’m talking huge production numbers (sometimes charmingly and sometimes frenetically choreographed by Chloe Arnold) with hundreds of dancers and complex sequences. The songs, written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (the team behind La La Land, Dear Evan Hansen and The Greatest Showman) along with Khiyon Hursey, Sukari Jones and Mark Sonnenblick, are are pretty terrific. There might not be a song as powerful as “This is Me” or “Waving Through a Window,” but the songs are instantly catchy. “Good Afternoon,” which features a positively delightful cameo (that I won’t spoil here) and both Reynolds and Farrell tap dancing, is a highlight. “Tap is new for me. It’s a very expressive medium,” Clint says as the number ends. I’m all for 2010’s Sexiest Man Alive tapping like there’s no tomorrow.
Reynolds and Ferrell have a great rapport; they are having so much fun it’s hard not to get caught up in it. Spencer’s singing is perhaps a little less polished than her co-stars, but I liked it because when Kimberley sings, it truly sounds like someone just breaking into song. The romance between Present and Kimberley gives the movie a needed dose of sweetness.
But now I must insert a little “Bah, humbug!” into this review. The script has some funny lines (along with quite a few plugs for Sephora) but is self-aware a little too often, like when Marley references “every other adaptation nobody asked for” or one of the characters asks, “Why are they singing?” Also, I would like to have a chat with whoever was in charge of the wigs for the movies. Because the ones on Anders and Joe Tippett, who plays Clint’s brother, are baaaaddddd. Bad to the point of distracting. Every time Carrie came on the scene, I thought, “Why does she have a red mop on her head?” It’s a shame that Spirited (rightly) carries a PG-13 rating. There’s a lot of not-for-kids content here, including sexual innuendos and a dark plot twist towards the end. I wish the movie could have stayed in the PG arena and had a broader appeal, especially considering how fun the singing and dancing is. And not to be a total Scrooge, but I really hated what happens to Clint at the end. But in the name of “doing a little good” like the movie suggests, I will say Spirited is not completely unredeemable.
Director: Sean Anders
Writer: Sean Anders, John Morris
Starring: Will Ferrell, Ryan Reynolds, Octavia Spencer, Patrick Page, Sunita Mani, Loren Woods, Tracy Morgan, Joe Tippett, Marlow Barkley, Aimee Carrero, Andrea Anders, Jen Tullock
Release Date: November 11, 2022 (theaters); November 18, 2022 (Apple TV+)
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer and a member of the Television Critics Association. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).