Spirited Review: A Mixed-Bag Blend Of Christmas Cheer, Snark, And Song

The new film "Spirited" has somehow figured out how to do a hat-trick of gimmicks. Throughout the history of cinema, there has been a bevy of countless adaptations of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol", and many of them — especially in recent years — are gimmick-heavy. Some are musicals, like "The Muppet Christmas Carol"; some are modern, like "Scrooged"; and some are nightmarishly animated, like Robert Zemeckis' mo-cap version with Jim Carrey. Rare is the film with multiple gimmicks, yet "Spirited" is that unicorn. Is it modern? Is it a musical? Check and check. But the one twist that "Spirited" offers to separate itself from the pack is this: it's set from the POV of the ghosts haunting a Scrooge-like figure. In that respect, and many others, "Spirited" feels like it was built on the factory floor of Apple (the studio that's distributing the film, in theaters on November 11 and streaming on November 18), combined of spare parts and made slick in the hopes of impressing audiences, and resulting in a very mixed bag from top to bottom.

Will Ferrell, no stranger to Christmas movies, plays the current title-holder of the Ghost of Christmas Present. In this iteration of the story, he's not only joined by the Ghost of Christmas Past (Sunita Mani) and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (voiced by Tracy Morgan, and performed by Loren G. Woods); he's part of a corporatized system in which spirits of the living work all year-round to build out a scenario meant to turn that year's so-called perp from a Scrooge into a do-gooder. Yes, these ghosts have spectral powers, but they also have the ability to recreate selected humans' pasts to show them the errors of their selfish ways and encourage them to change. Present has been at the job for 100-plus years, and is well past the time when he could retire (AKA go back to Earth and live out his life as a human again). And he thinks he's found his best match yet in the latest perp, the venal and snarky marketing whiz Clint Briggs (Ryan Reynolds). Clint is so generically nasty and glib that he's less convinced by his experience to become a better person and more interested in learning about Present's life before death. 

So much of "Spirited" is seemingly at war with itself. The source material — yes, remade many times in films and on TV — is achingly, clearly sincere. And a few parts of "Spirited," from co-writers Sean Anders (who directed) and John Morris, are aiming for sincerity in 21st-century packaging. But much of the film's personality aligns with the smugness that Reynolds evinces in so many of his recent projects. The clearest indication of how "Spirited" essentially wants to have its cake (step back and make snarky jokes for 90 percent of the running time) and eat it too (take up the final 10 percent for a smattering of cloying emotion meant to replicate genuine sincerity) is in how the film treats its many musical numbers. Conjured up by the seemingly unavoidable songwriting duo of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the songs evoke memories of better musicals, but they're often greeted with one character or another sighing heavily and remarking that it must be time for another song with the same exhaustion best felt by someone who's finished running a marathon. In short: if you are going to make a musical, don't be ashamed that you are making a musical.

A musical at war with itself

The way that "Spirited" couches its songs, many of which feature extended choreography from background dancers, ends up being both more memorable and more annoying than the songs themselves. Reynolds and Ferrell's voices, with what appears to be a dash or two of AutoTuning, are ... okay, as are the brief dancing skills they show off in shots held for a whopping three or four seconds at a time, as if to highlight the moves as opposed to carefully editing around them. Certainly, both stars are more comfortable when bouncing off each other, though Ferrell isn't given as much leeway to be as funny as his counterpart due to the emotional arc laid out for Present. (That said, he gets one of the true, genuine laughs in the film when, while watching an ad, wonders if he has "mild to moderate Crohn's disease.") 

That emotional arc, in which Present (for reasons that the film would no doubt want to remain unspoiled, but are dumb enough to inspire intense eye-rolling) wonders how much he's changed over time, does allow for one of the few bright spots in "Spirited." Early on, Present is shocked that one of Clint's employees, Kimberly (Octavia Spencer), can see and hear him without realizing who he is, and they spark up a possible romantic relationship. Ferrell and Spencer have an agreeably cute tentative chemistry together, and one that could've led to a much more compelling overall film. 

It's hard, in watching "Spirited", to not think at least a little bit of Will Ferrell's other Christmas movie "Elf." (There's one seeming attempt at a reference to "Elf" that falls flat.) That movie balanced a very tight line, between being as winning and guileless as Buddy the Elf himself and having a secretly sly sense of humor that would appeal to audiences. Though it's worth noting that "Spirited" isn't family fare the way "Elf" was, it, too, is trying to balance adult humor with an all-ages style of embrace of the holiday season. Where "Spirited" struggles is in the very concept of yet another iteration of "A Christmas Carol." (The fact that there are so many adaptations is directly acknowledged here, by none other than Jacob Marley, for reasons too onerous to describe here.) This movie is aware that the audience knows it's the latest in an assembly line of adaptations, and that knowledge is the opposite of power. A movie like "Elf", as its opening credits suggest, seemingly sprung to life out of a children's book. "Spirited" evokes the sense that it sprung to life out of a series of focus-group sessions among corporate executives.

/Film Rating: 4 out of 10