Like a too-generous parent on Christmas morning, “Spirited” keeps doling out the shiny presents long after the recipients are sated. But if there’s a genre that begs to be maximalist, it’s a musical comedy with its roots in Charles Dickens; it’s not so much whether or not you like what “Spirited” has to offer but how much of it you can take in one sitting.
The whole “one sitting” concept may be an outdated one, since this is a film that’s going to live its life (and its Christmases Yet to Come) on Apple TV+, where there’s always a pause button. But viewers who can see “Spirited” projected on the big screen absolutely should, if only to fully appreciate the splashy (sometimes in a literal sense) choreography from Chloe Arnold, one of the film’s true MVPs.
Not that the marquee names are slacking — the teaming of Will Ferrell (making his return to Christmas movies nearly two decades after “Elf”) and Ryan Reynolds delivers the banter you’d expect and the singing and dancing you might not, and their energetic interplay goes a long way to making “Spirited” a movie that might become a holiday go-to in certain households.
Ferrell stars as Present, one of a trio of ghosts who visit a despicable person every Christmas Eve with some redemptive life lessons. (His cohorts are Sunita Mani, as Past, and Tracy Morgan, lending his voice to the cloaked, towering Yet to Come.) Present has been eligible for retirement, which would allow him to return to Earth and live again, for 46 years, but he keeps putting it off.
This year, Present decides their “perp” needs to be slimy strategist Clint Briggs (Reynolds), a media manipulator who skillfully creates scandals to benefit corporations and politicians. (He gets the film’s most holiday-centric number, “Bringin’ Back Christmas,” a cynical ploy to assist Christmas-tree growers by starting a culture war against people who prefer artificial trees.) Despite the warnings from Present’s boss Marley (Patrick Page, “The Gilded Age”) that Clint’s file has been marked “Unredeemable,” Present presses on, at least partially so he can spend more time around Clint’s long-suffering assistant Kimberly (Octavia Spencer), the only mortal who can actually see Present.
Come Christmas night, Clint displays his talent for deflection and changing the subject; he seduces Past in his childhood bedroom and spends the rest of the evening forcing Present to consider his own existence and why he’s been putting off a return to Earth. (It’s not unlike celebrities who eat up interview time by pretending to care all about their interviewers.) Over the course of a raucous (and musical number–filled) evening, Present and Clint will do their best to break through each other’s defenses before the sun rises Christmas morning.
Director Sean Anders (the “Daddy’s Home” movies), co-writing with John Morris, clearly knows his “Christmas Carol” antecedents: Page’s Marley carries more than a whiff of Michael Hordern’s spectral visitor from the 1951 version; Joe Tippett (“Mare of Easttown”), as Clint’s younger brother, is definitely channeling Bobcat Goldthwait in “Scrooged”; and the Victorian London–set number “Good Afternoon” takes a page from the post-“Oliver!” choreography of 1970’s “Scrooge,” even if the song itself sounds more Seth MacFarlane than Leslie Bricusse.
All the songs, incidentally, are the product of in-demand composers Pasek & Paul, who are admittedly divisive among fans of musical theater, with credits that span “Smash,” “La La Land,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” “The Greatest Showman” and the musical version of “A Christmas Story.” There’s a bit of sameness to their work here, and overall, their compositions land better in a “this is a musical number” context than as “I am one character pouring out their heart.” Many of the songs here are diverting if not immediately catchy, in a score so overstuffed that one of the best songs (“Ripple”) got cut from the movie and now runs alongside the closing credits.
What really makes the numbers pop is Arnold’s choreography, and she allows the ensemble of dancers to show off a variety of moves from traditional tap to splashing around in puddles to pogo-sticking to ice-skating to a sequence involving dozens of flashlights that’s going to be stolen by economical high-school stage productions for decades to come. Reynolds, Ferrell and Spencer won’t have Broadway calling, necessarily, but as vocalists, they definitely sell the material.
It’s when they’re not singing that the two-hour-plus running time of “Spirited” becomes felt; the screenplay doesn’t sell the personal journeys of Present and Clint as well as the songs do, so when the music stops and we get yet another scene of these two guys trying to force each other to become better people, you can feel the movie deflating. Thankfully, the songs come so fast, furious and frequently that the pacing never goes completely off the rails.
Telling “A Christmas Carol” from other points of view isn’t necessarily new: There have been multiple Jacob Marley novels over the years, and even Hallmark Channel managed to get their above-average “Ghosts of Christmas Always” on the air a few weeks before “Spirited” premiered. But fans of Ferrell and Reynolds — and lovers of capital-m Musicals — will be delighted to find this under their tree, even if it’s more than they asked for.
“Spirited” opens in U.S. theaters Nov. 11 and on Apple TV+ Nov. 18.