Spirited review: Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell star in future Christmas classic

Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds in SpiritedApple TV+

Spirited, a big-budget song-and-dance inversion of the Christmas Carol fable with Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell, is rather brilliant, destined to join the cozy echelon of holiday rewatchables.

The best Christmas movies are manipulative; this is a genre engineered to spread festive cheer for all to hear, whether it’s George Bailey running through Bedford Falls, Diane Keaton’s pregnant portrait in The Family Stone, or… all of Love Actually.

Spirited boasts a dizzying, gallows turn in its third act that may be a step too far for some, but it’s entirely appropriate given its oft-cited source material is the most manipulative of all: A Christmas Carol, a story that makes you hate its humbug subject, relish his fear, and celebrate his epiphany.

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As you’d expect from a Reynolds gig, Spirited is a meta spin on the be-kind parable, so skepticism is warranted – but the result is smart, earnest, and laudable, perhaps the most meaningful adaptation since Scrooged. Apple TV may have found its first blockbuster.

Spirited takes the POV away from Scrooge

“Do people really change? We’re in the business of change,” the Ghost of Christmas Present (Ferrell) says as a weeping Rose Byrne begs for mercy from the skeletal-handed Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come (hilariously voiced by Tracy Morgan). She sinks into her own grave – but don’t worry, she’ll wake up in her bed with a sudden zest for life.

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Yes, Spirited unfolds from the POV of the Ghosts, who’ve turned their nasty-to-nice haunts into a cottage industry, operating out of a dream-weaving workshop led by Jacob Marley (Patrick Page). Stage rigging, speakers, and lights hang from the ceilings because, occasionally, people break out into song – all of the afterlife is a musical, you see. “We haunt someone, change them into a better person, and then we sing about it,” Present says.

Trying to overcome the “post-haunt comedown” and threat of retirement, Present tries to crack his toughest nut yet: an “irredeemable” named Clint Briggs (Reynolds, with a name that may as well be a synonym for d*ck), the leader of a media relations company that spreads controversy, conflict, and disinformation for his clients, whether they’re the President of the United States or a niece running for the school council.

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So begins a tap-dancing, ballad-blasting adventure in his past, present, and future, but an expected bromance blossoms as they journey through all sorts of misdeeds and trauma.

Spirited is going to the top of Spotify

Once you get past the smart-arse conceit of a musical that knows it’s a musical (Marley’s eye-rolling will be shared by some viewers, I fear), the songs are incredibly charming and impressively staged – as they should, given they’re composed by La La Land and The Greatest Showman’s Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.

That Christmas Morning Feelin’ is a shoulder-jiving toe-tapper, Octavia Spencer nearly steals the movie with The View From Here, Do A Little Good is irresistible, and Good Afternoon is a gloriously silly, laugh-out-loud romp.

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The most striking number is Unredeemable, which unfolds under a gorgeous array of flashlight beams, closer in choreography to David Byrne’s American Utopia than the movie’s more traditional musical theater flourishes. Reynolds and Ferrell aren’t great vocalists, but Pierce Brosnan proved a great voice doesn’t equal a great musical – commitment and enthusiasm matter more.

Spirited won’t win everyone over

Spirited won’t make any new fans of Reynolds, who’s essentially playing a more refined reprisal of Van Wilder while honing the smarmy, sh*t-eating grin of his comedic persona – but it works, his character is fiendishly likable until he’s loathsome, and the star strikes that balance well.

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Also, props to the costume designers, who’ve fashioned the best alternate Santa suit since Ben Affleck’s fit in Reindeer Games. Sell it, and they will come (aka, I will buy it).

Ferrell’s competition is himself, given he headlined the most iconic Christmas movie this side of the millennium. As always, he gleefully shows little regard for dignity in his physical comedy, and while the movie is never of the same caliber as Elf, it’s clear he’s found a good fit with director Sean Anders, who earlier helmed Daddy’s Home and Instant Family.

Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell in SpiritedApple TV+

The two biggest issues are the film’s irritating need to shoehorn comedy where it’s unneeded, like a background character asking if someone clears their search history after they die in the middle of a song, and a bloated runtime of more than two hours, made heavier by around five different endings – they’re all good, at least.

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Yet, for any misfire in the script, they’re saved by Reynolds and Ferrell’s crackling chemistry. There’s clearly a bit of improv at play here, whether they’re debating Tiny Tim or riffing on each other’s energy, not to mention the funniest visual freeze-gag since Adam Sandler farted in David Hasselhoff’s face in Click.

Above all else, Spirited echoes the lesson of A Christmas Carol with evolved maturity – we can’t all commit to a clean bill of morality, so maybe it’s better to try to give a little more, work a little harder than you did the day before, and “do what you can.”

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Spirited review score: 4/5

Spirited dares to make itself the plaything of critics with a song titled Unredeemable, but in the end, it does more than a little good.

Spirited is available to watch in cinemas now and will be released on Apple TV+ on November 18.