Movie Curiosities: Spirited

I’ve always wondered what was happening in the background of “A Christmas Carol”. Who and what were the Christmas Ghosts, and why did they haunt Scrooge in particular? Why did they only come around on that one special Christmas if they could’ve intervened sooner? It feels like there’s a whole other story there, happening just beyond the fringes.

There have been some efforts at expanding the world of the Dickens classic, but none of them ever really caught fire. Jeff Goode wrote “Marley’s Ghost” back in 2003, but of course a humble stage play wasn’t enough to get mainstream recognition. We also got the 2019 BBC adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” with Guy Pearce, which threw in a few glimpses behind the veil as the filmmakers bloated the original story to miniseries length.

And now we have Spirited, a modern Christmas musical comedy based on the premise that Dickens’ holiday classic was secretly a work of nonfiction. So, picking up nearly 200 years later, we finally get to see what happened after Scrooge’s fateful Christmas Eve. And while the movie does answer what eventually became of Scrooge, no way am I spoiling that here.

Instead, the film primarily focuses on the Christmas Ghosts, who’ve kept on keeping on through all these years. On every Christmas since Scrooge (and probably for quite a few Christmases before him), the Ghosts have picked out a new asshat to try and scare into being a decent person. They’re assisted by a legion of hard-working bureaucrats and craftspeople working tirelessly to research each “perp”, construct the scenes of each haunt, keep the haunt running smoothly, etc. And all of this is directly overseen by none other than Jacob Marley himself, here played by Patrick Page.

The idea is that everyone involved in all of this was alive at some point, and this is where people go after they die. (It could be only one of many options, the film is unclear on this.) Furthermore, it’s possible to work within the system toward earning “retirement”, which here means reincarnation and another shot at life in the mortal world. This in turn means that the Christmas Ghosts are really only job titles and these aren’t necessarily the same Ghosts that haunted Scrooge.

Now in the modern day, our Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future are respectively played by Sunita Mani, Will Ferrell, and the voice of Tracy Morgan. Present is more or less our protagonist, as he’s been eligible to retire for close to half a century now, yet he keeps staying on year after year. Though Present is sorely tempted to take another shot at life, he’s scared of the possibility that he might screw it up.

Moreover, Present reasons that he’s still doing important work and there are still so many assholes to try and reform in the interest of making the world a better place. Then again, the fact that there are still so many assholes in the world after he’s been doing this job for 200 years doesn’t exactly reflect well on the quality or efficacy of his work.

Enter Clint Briggs (Ryan Reynolds), a massively successful media consultant who specializes in drumming up publicity by way of misinformation, public controversy, negative campaigning, and so on. Present sees this guy and immediately knows that if Clint is reformed by the next year’s haunt, it could bring about a beneficial ripple effect on a global scale. Just one problem: Upper management has written off Clint as a lost cause beyond any hope of redemption. Even so, Present pushes onward, determined to lead the Christmas Ghosts in getting Clint to change his ways.

But of course it can’t be that simple. After all, Clint is an especially putrid jerkwad who genuinely loves his life. He sees no reason whatsoever to stop acting like a dick, especially when it’s done so much to help him get ahead in this whole shitty world. Present and the other Ghosts can’t hope to succeed so long as they play by the typical rules, so Present breaks protocol by opening himself up to Clint on a personal level, which results in Clint and Present forming a connection and helping to redeem each other.

Without getting too deeply into spoilers, it makes a huge difference that this take on Present has his own tragic history. Clint has been written off as an irredeemable asshole by everyone else except for Present, and that’s only because Present has been forgiven by everyone except himself. Thus we have an interplay between the two that’s every bit as funny as it is heartfelt.

Both characters have to struggle with the question of what it means to be redeemed, or to be unredeemable, if such a thing really exists. Can one person really make a difference? Is it even possible for a person to change their most deep-seated nature in the long term?

Ultimately, the film settles on the answer that it’s absolutely possible to make a change and to change the world in turn, but not all at once. This isn’t the sort of thing that can be done in one night, it’s an everyday thing done a little at a time over the course of years. We’re all deeply flawed and we can never hope to be perfect, but we can be just a little bit more decent than we were the day before. It’s a sweet little message that plays off the source material, challenging and updating Dickens’ original themes without rejecting them completely.

At this point, I feel compelled to add that the film was directed by Sean Anders, who also co-wrote and produced the film alongside John Morris. This is the same team that previously brought us the painfully underrated Instant Family, a movie that elegantly balanced heart-rending sincerity with gut-busting humor to marvelous effect. That same practiced touch paid HUGE dividends here.

Oh, and did I mention that this is a musical? Because as so many theatre enthusiasts have long suspected, the afterlife is indeed a musical. The soundtrack was written by the team of Pasek and Paul (also executive producers here), late of the soundtracks for La La Land and The Greatest Showman. Well in keeping with their established CV, the songs here are full of bombast and loads of fun to listen to. The music is delightful, the lyrics are expertly crafted, the choreography is all aces, and the visuals are loaded with fun little touches in the editing and production design.

Of course this film belongs to Ryan Reynolds and producer Will Ferrell. The both of them are playing well within their comfort zones here, with roles so far deep into their respective wheelhouses that they can put all their focus toward having fun. It’s also important to note that neither one of them has ever exhibited any degree of shame, so they have the freedom to mercilessly push each other as far as they possibly can for the sake of getting bigger and bigger laughs.

Alas, the rest of the cast doesn’t fare nearly as well.

Octavia Spencer is here as Clint’s right-hand woman, who’s grown increasingly conflicted about her work in opposition research. Again, this is a role that Spencer could play in her sleep at this point, and her singing voice is none too shabby. The problem is that this particular character is also supposed to be a love interest for Present. As great as Ferrell and Spencer are in their respective roles, they have nowhere near enough chemistry to sell that romance.

We’ve got a similar case with Sunita Mani. In the role of Past, she’s hilarious. She plays Past as a woman who’s sexually obsessed with Ryan Reynolds’ character, which is perfectly understandable and played in a truly humorous way. But then the filmmakers try and go a step further and sell Clint/Past as a romantic item. It doesn’t work. The chemistry isn’t there and the two of them don’t have anywhere near enough shared screen time to make it work.

Then we’ve got Marlow Barkley in the role of Clint’s young niece, and she also appears as the teenage version of Clint’s older sister. Her most memorable and charming work is during the end credits, when she’s out of character. I’m sorry, I really want to like the kid, but between this and Slumberland, she’s giving me nothing to work with. Lucky she’s still young and there’s a good sporting chance her best days are ahead of her.

Lucky we’ve got Patrick Page to bring his innate charisma and incredible singing voice to the role of Jacob Marley. Likewise, Tracy Morgan is a laugh riot as the voice of Future. And that’s not even getting started on the showstopping cameos and bit parts I don’t dare spoil here. That said, I do take exception to Will Ferrell’s self-own regarding his previous modern holiday classic, that was uncalled for.

The production design is gleaming with polish, and there are some genuinely spellbinding special effects with regard to the scene transitions. My one minor gripe is that the team may have overdone it just a bit on the red-and-green color scheme. I get that those are the traditional holiday colors, but we’re not supposed to be in Santa’s workshop here.

Overall, I had a blast with Spirited. The musical numbers are all great fun, the humor is on point, and the Reynolds/Ferrell combo is dynamite. Even if the romance arcs don’t land as well as they should, this is still an uplifting and creative “Christmas Carol” riff overflowing with comedic talent and holiday cheer. Put simply, this is the movie that finally got my household to sign up for an Apple TV account, that’s how good it is.

I deliberately waited a while to see this one until I was in the mood for something festive. Don’t wait any longer. Give this one a shot.

Good afternoon!

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