It’s hard to overstate how much I love A Christmas Carol. (Yes, I’m aware I’m a huge dork.) Every December I reread Charles Dickens’ novella and watch as many adaptation of his iconic ghost tale as I can. I’m not a traditionalist snob, though. Scrooged is one of my favorite versions and I believe Gonzo and Rizzo are the greatest duo in the history of the world. So if anyone was primed to enjoy Spirited, Apple TV+’s original take on the classic story, it was me. Especially since I’m also a huge fan of its stars Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds. Of course, all that also means I went into the film with the highest of expectations.
However, for all of the baggage I carried with me into Spirited, I was not prepared for what I saw. Because it isn’t really a movie; it’s a Broadway musical masquerading as one. That makes for a weird first viewing. But despite some obvious flaws and some mostly forgettable songs, it still works. And it works well enough I’ll be adding Spirited to my yearly A Christmas Carol movie rewatch list.
I don’t know if Spirited was originally written as a Broadway musical, but at minimum the film desperately wants to be one. It’s many grand numbers are filmed as though they’re taking place on a big stage. (And would certainly look incredible in that format.)
The choreography is fantastic and those scenes work better than most cinematic stage adaptations. The problem is that while they’re entertaining to look at, most of the songs sound like generic Broadway fare. No song is outright bad, and some are objectively good. But with the exception of one standout track (destined to become a classic), you won’t be able to hum a single note from them the second they end. I even started mentally checking out during later numbers.
It’s obviously a problem when half of a musical’s songs are instantly forgettable or downright tedious. That’s ultimately why I found myself enjoying the film more when people weren’t singing. Don’t take that as a backhanded compliment, though. The non-musical scenes mostly work from start to finish. Spirited overcomes its issues thanks to its three leads, an entertaining and fresh take on a well-known story, and its obvious admiration for the source material.
Will Ferrell manages to bring a real humanity and genuine sadness to the Ghost of Christmas Present, all while sprinkling in just enough Will Ferrell-ness to keep things fun. Meanwhile, Ryan Reynolds finds the perfect balance of smug and likability as Clint Briggs, and amoral global influencer thought unredeemable (including by himself). And in the least surprising news of all, Octavia Spencer is wonderful as Briggs’ employee who has long sacrificed her own soul for her career.
They’re not the only ones who help Spirited find success, though. The film features an amazing voice performance for the Ghost of Christmas Future. (You do NOT want that person’s identity spoiled.) The Ghost of Christmas Past also brings plenty of laughs thanks to a delightful performances by Glow‘s Sunita Mani. And the other supporting roles all add the winning mix of comedy and heart the film sets out to deliver.
Despite not understanding it’s a movie, Spirited‘s script ultimately also overcomes its identity crisis on the strength of its story. This is very much an adaptation of A Christmas Carol, but it’s unlike any other. Christmas hauntings aren’t something four ghosts do in a single night. The endeavor includes an entire division of spirits working year round to change one person. The hope is that chosen individual will then cause “ripples” of good throughout humanity. Only Brigg’s refuses to follow the script. His intransigence and need to be in control sends Ferrell’s Ghost of Christmas Present on his own journey of self-discovery and change. That leads both men to confront who they are together, though each is reluctant to do so for different reasons.
While many of the major elements of A Christmas Carol are present, the film also boasts some clever secrets. It also has one major reveal that had me thinking about A Christmas Carol lore as if I were watching an MCU movie. I suggest you don’t do that. Just enjoy this heartfelt and funny movie for what it is, even if it’s really a well-filmed Broadway musical. (I know I’m harping on that, but it’s so true crew members move “set pieces” throughout the film.)
Spirited, like its main characters, is not perfect. That includes an ending that didn’t quite land for me even if I understood how it fit into the story. But its comedy, heart, and cast make it an enjoyable experience. And with repeated viewing my bet is some of those otherwise forgettable songs will start to stick, making it better the more I see it. Which I plan to do many times for many Christmases. Spirited might be flawed, but it clearly loves A Christmas Carol and understands why so many others do too. How could I not like a movie—or a Broadway musical for that matter—like that?
Spirited comes to theaters November 11, 2022. It debuts at Apple TV+ on November 18.
Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike. And also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.