By Lynn Venhaus
Whether you embrace the holiday season by turning on Christmas music soon after Halloween or are in the “Bah, Humbug” camp year-round, “Spirited” may surprise you as a sweet-and-salty confection that’s both playful and parody.
A merry musical comedy that offers a fresh twist on the evergreen “A Christmas Carol” from the ghosts’ point of view also mocks the endless parade of holiday entertainment and its conventions.
And that’s refreshing, given that the Hallmark Channel has started its festive onslaught and other streaming services will churn out dozens of films before the new year. We all have our annual favorites, of course, and I wouldn’t be surprised if “Spirited” is among the perennials in years to come.
This flip on Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella is that the Ghost of Christmas Present (Will Ferrell, in charming doofus mode) selects one dark soul to be reformed by a visit from spirits on Christmas Eve. Sunita Mani is Past, Tracy Morgan is Yet to Come (in voice only), and Patrick Page is Jacob Marley.
He must find a selfish man who will see why he ended up miserable and alone, and why he should change. But his choice, an “unredeemable” marketing shark Clint Briggs (Ryan Reynolds doing his slick, sardonic persona) turns the tables and suddenly, Present is reexamining his life.
This bros-meets-Scrooged affair, co-written by Sean Anders and John Morris, is funny and clever, blending the 19th century behaviors with 22nd century attitudes, and Ferrell and Reynolds are quick with the quips and the wisecracks. Featuring Christmas movie Easter Eggs, there’s even an “Elf” nod, of course.
Anders and Morris are the writing team behind a string of genial just-folks comedies like “Instant Family,” “Daddy’s Home,” “We’re the Millers” and “Horrible Bosses 2.” They’re not re-inventing the wheel here, and this is entertaining enough to survive repeat viewings.
While kidding about “the afterlife is a musical!” and having a jaunty tone about the insertion of music numbers, “Spirited” is committed to the format. They’ve staged snappy song-and-dance numbers by choreographer Chloe Arnold, who’s been doing those delightful “Crosswalk musicals” and other numbers on James Corden’s “The Late Late Show.”
She knows what’s required of big splashy numbers, and the smiling dancers have pep in their steps – these are spirited homages on a major scale.
The songs are written by the current showtune golden boys Benji Pasek and Justin Paul, who recently produced and wrote original material for “Lyle, Lyle Crocodile.”
Pasek and Paul, who adapted “A Christmas Story” into a Broadway musical in 2009, are one award shy of an EGOT. They are Oscar winners for “La La Land,” Tony winners for “Dear Evan Hansen,” and their “The Greatest Showman” soundtrack won a Grammy Award and has sold over 7 million copies worldwide.
The funniest song here, not unlike the ironic “South Park” numbers, is “Good Afternoon.” The movie is bracketed by the tap-happy “That Christmas Morning Feelin,’” which is likely the catchiest takeaway. “Do a Little Good” is memorable and Spencer has a genuinely touching ballad “The View From Here.” Who knew she could sing? Or for that matter, Reynolds!
Ferrell, who showed his ease with music on “Saturday Night Live” — in such classic sketches as Marty Culp, along with Ana Gasteyer as his wife Bobbi Mohan Culp, who taught music at the Altadena Middle School, and the best-ever “More Cowbell” — is a natural, and Reynolds also demonstrates his willingness to have fun performing. (And he certainly fares better than Pierce Brosnan in “Mamma Mia!”)
The sweet part of the story is the Briggs family connections, and the director’s sister, Andrea Anders, a veteran of sitcoms including “Joey,” “Ted Lasso” and “Young Sheldon,” plays Reynolds’ sister Carrie, while Joe Tippett plays baby brother Owen and Marlow Barkley is the young niece.
This is a cheery, we’re not taking ourselves too seriously holiday offering where there seemed to be much effort made in getting all the elements right.
So, heat up the cocoa, haul the ugly sweater out of storage, and enjoy getting into the holiday spirit. May you have one of the the hap, hap, happiest Christmas movie watches since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny Kaye.
“Spirited” is a 2022 musical comedy directed by Sean Anders starring Will Ferrell, Ryan Reynolds, Octavia Spencer, Sunita Mani and Patrick Page. It’s Rated PG-13 for language, some suggestive material, and thematic elements, and the run time is 2 hours, 7 minutes. In theaters Nov. 11 and streaming on Apple TV + starting Nov. 18. Lynn’s Grade: B
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.