The rise of Ryan Reynolds over the past decade had been long overdue. The star of films like Van Wilder and Buried had more than proven his value as a fringe star. However, few would have guessed that the actor would often shy away from his foul-mouthed persona in non-superhero projects. Still, he’s maintained a slightly subversive edge in big-budget comedies, making him an ideal partner for someone like Will Ferrell to push him along. Besides some voice work in animated features, Ferrell has been pursuing TV and cameo roles for the past five years. Yet the combination of Reynolds and Ferrell makes for a surprisingly joyous ride in Spirited, the latest film from Apple TV+.
After more than forty consecutive years of helping heal misanthropes around the holidays, the Ghost of Christmas Present (Ferrell) has grown bored. He wants to ensure the changes he makes affect more than just a single person but instead spread larger ripples of hope and positivity. While Jacob Marley (Patrick Page) finds easy targets, Ferrell becomes fascinated with an “unredeemable” named Clint (Reynolds). To change Clint, the Ghost of Christmas Present must connect with those in his life (Octavia Spencer) and keep his own team (Sunita Mani & Tracy Morgan) on track.
Directed by Sean Anders, Spirited features surprisingly saccharine and sincere views of creating good in the world. It’s this ethos and choice that keeps the excitement up in Spirited, even as the film falters from being slightly overstuffed. Despite its runtime, Reynolds and Ferrell do a lot of good moving us along and keeping us within the story. For the first time since The Producers, someone uses Ferrell’s singing talents for good. He’s long joked about his abilities, but his performance is the Mel Brooks adaptation was special (even if the movie struggles). Anders deserves some credit there, as does Ferrell for being game to go big.
Reynolds still feels slightly miscast, but we need someone smarmy to play off Ferrell. Some have suggested that Reynolds is slowly moving into Chevy Chase territory as a comedic foil, but he struggles to capture Chevy’s selfish entitlement. Instead, he telegraphs his character’s ability to change from the word go, which might be a result of Reynolds’ unwillingness to go full bad guy after years of it leaving him in the dark. At the same time, Reynolds nails the choreography but struggles to leave much of an impression with the vocals. Sadly this is a fairly uneven performance from him.
Meanwhile, Spencer represents something of a moral compass for the film. It’s an important aspect of the story for us to buy in on these characters. However, Spencer remains underutilized. She’s backgrounded for much of Act 2, and this is ultimately a weakness of the script. Casting one of the most Oscar-nominated actresses as a supporting player, only to leave her without standout material, feels slightly disrespectful.
Ultimately, Anders surrounds the two comedians with plenty of fun material. The world-building is impressive, and the surprisingly sexual humor for a Christmas movie actually plays. Anders gets the choreography to look great thanks to wide and group shots. After all, big dance numbers do not work if you cannot see the dancing. For Anders, Spirited feels like a return to comedic form and builds off the surprisingly emotional Instant Family from 2018.
Sadly, Anders is let down by one of the more consistent duos in Hollywood today. Broadway and songwriting legends Benj Pasek and Justin Paul do not quite give the numbers the heft to hold the film together. At times, Spirited‘s musical number verge on formulaic. That is not to say all the numbers fail. Perhaps the most enjoyable and long choreography sequence in the film comes in a surprising number, “Good Afternoon.” The Mary Poppins parody number is the most enjoyable of the film. However, others are more forgettable, and this is a shame. For the most part, Page and his co-stars in the ensemble are used well. They just do not have the songs to showcase their abilities.
Despite a few missteps, Spirited will likely be crowned as the best of the new Christmas films in 2022. The new age take on A Christmas Carol could easily be mocked, given the cast assembled. However, it’s rather difficult to be cynical when the movie is this much fun. Despite some pitfalls, Spirited may find itself in the holiday rotation for years.