We love Will Ferrell, Ryan Reynolds and Octavia Spencer. We all do, and I know I’m not speaking out of turn when I say “we” here.
And that’s a big help when diving into the musical “Spirited,” a musical “Christmas Carol” updating that uses “Scrooged” as its guiding star.
When Ferrell turns to the camera in the middle of singing “That Christmas Morning Feeling,” and flips us all the bird, that’s what they were going for here — juvenile, PG-13 “naughty” with an Oscar winner and two bromantic comedians not known for singing and dancing joining in on the singing and dancing.
So it’s a sort-of “family” musical with very dark and up to date undertones and a little edge, augmented by a smattering of profanity. Any thoughts of this being Ferrell’s follow-up to the sweeter-than-sweet modern holiday classic “Elf” go right out the door long before he’s flipped us all off.
The tunes have “Dear Evan Hansen,” “La La Land” and “Greatest Showman” composer/lyricist authorship. But the director, Sean Anders, who co-wrote it, did Ferrell’s “Daddy’s Home” buddy comedies with Mark Wahlberg. So no, he’s not known for musicals either.
And you just knew from the amusing, snappy trailers, promotional gags and the like that Reynolds and Ferrell have plunged intot o promote this that the movie wasn’t going to be as funny or as much fun as they promised. It isn’t.
But it starts giddy and finds a few moments to shine. The dancing and production numbers are close to dazzling. Reynolds, Ferrell and especially Spencer sing well enough that one listens for autotune touches and is tempted to look-up if they actually did their own singing. Yes. Yes they did.
And again, we LOVE those guys. So there’ll be no incineration of “Spirited” here. Everybody involved took a lot of Apple’s money and took career risks and they kind of, sort of pull it off.
Ferrell plays the Ghost of Christmas Present, a veteran in service of a sort of Santa’s Workshop as Silicon Valley cloud tech start-up that sets out to give one HOA Nazi/neighbor from Hell (Rose Byrne) or “rat bastard hotel manager” or other stinker that one Christmas night of “visits” that change them for the better each year.
Just like Mr. Scrooge.
Patrick Page is Jacob Marley, director of this operation, where they save-one-soul-at a-time and create “ripples” of kindness and righteousness through the culture. And yes, two screenwriters spent time on the clock coming up with all this logistical, expositional claptrap.
Reynolds plays Clint, a nasty, negative-ad mastering media consultant deemed “unredeemable” by the higher ups. But Mr. Christmas Present insists they try, joined by Christmas Past (Sunita Mani) who can’t keep her tongue in her mouth while lapping up all there is to see of the handsome, flippant and shallow Clint.
Christmas Future? He’s voiced by Tracy Morgan and is as tall and scary as the Specter of Death Itself. He scares the hell out of Karen (Byrne) anyway. Great effect.
Can Clint, who introduces himself by singing to a Christmas Tree Growers’ convention that they’re doomed, but that he can negative advertise them back to glory, be saved?
“Every Facebook loving Boomer wants to fight a culture war,” he croons. “So tell your core consumer what the hell they’re fighting for!”
Clint even wants to help his neglected eighth grade niece (Marlowe Barkley) win her school election by “going negative.” He puts his ace executive vice president (Spencer) on the case doing the oppo research that will destroy young Josh’s candidacy.
Past, Present and Future set out to change Clint, who is so snide and cynical that he makes them question why they even bother. “People are selfish and awful and never change” is what has made him rich, after all.
“Is mankind getting any mankinder” thanks to their efforts?
He’s got a point.
“Spirited” wanders hither and yon, with clever effect/set changes to show Clint flashbacks to his troubled childhood, and early career success. He even persuades his “Present” guide to go back to Dickensian English where the guide-ghost was last alive himself, producing an “Oliver!” styled number in an English eatery and pub that is the musical, costume and dancing highlight of the film. Of course they reference “Oliver!” in it. They know what they’re mocking as well as we do.
Spencer sings a soul-searching ballad or two and Ferrell and Reynolds share some song and dance duets that are delightful, if you give yourself over to them as musicals demand that you do. I got a “Dear Evan Hansen” instantly forgettable vibe from most of them.
When pondering why this wasn’t taking flight more often, I settled on how produced, rehearsed and directed a musical has to be, and how warm and loose and adorable those online bits that Reynolds and Ferrell come off. They’re played as throw-away gags, and no matter how scripted and rehearsed his fake feud with Hugh Jackman might be, Reynolds and Jackman make it seem like effortless comical antipathy.
“Spirited” it too long, self-serious and tidy to feel that spontaneous and goofy.
But it’s novel and kind of cute cute, and when it isn’t you just grit your teeth and recall how morbid “A Christmas Carol” really is, and if the screenplay is going to modernize that, death and the unpleasant facts of modern life are fair game, Jimmy Fallon cameo included.
The best idea here is but a single sequence, those singing and dancing Dickensians insulting each other with a phrase the movie insists we’ve twisted away from the profane put-down it was 200 years ago.
So there’s just enough novelty and fun to recommend “Spirited” — something I’ve never done for the sour “Scrooged” — with Reynolds and Ferrell hoofing and singing like this is what they’ve wanted to do all their professional lives.
And it’s just off-color enough to encourage 12 year-old boys to laugh at hearing their playground profanity thrown back at them, sending them back to school with fresh insults that this time, at least, won’t make their teachers blush.
Rating: PG-13 for (profanity), some suggestive material and thematic elements.
Cast: Will Ferrell, Ryan Reynolds, Octavia Spencer, Sunita Mani, Tracy Morgan, Patrick Page, Joe Tippett, Andrea Anders, Marlowe Barkley and Rose Byrne
Credits: Directed by Sean Anders, scripted by Sean Anders and John Morris. An Apple TV+ release.
Running time: 2:06