Charles Dickens’ classic 1843 Yuletide story “A Christmas Carol” might just be the most frequently adapted holiday work of all time, with dozens of theatrical, live-action and animated film and TV interpretations through the decades. Whether it’s the 1951 gold standard film starring Alastair Sim or the long-running annual theatrical adaptation at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre or “The Muppet Christmas Carol” or one of the endless parades of TV series from “Sanford and Son” to “WKRP in Cincinnati” to “Saved by the Bell” to a “A Different World,” these interpretations almost always tell the story from the point of view of Ebenezer Scrooge or a character with Scrooge-like tendencies; we’ve always been led to believe Scrooge’s experience was a one-off.
One of the clever conceits of the bouncy, upbeat, impressively staged and eminently huggable parody musical comedy “Spirited” is that the story is told mostly from the viewpoint of the ghosts in the machine, if you will. And it turns out this is a sophisticated operation that saves one redeemable soul every year, meaning ol’ Ebenezer is just a crusty old figure from long ago, and more than a hundred folks have been made to see the light since then. The Ghosts of Past, Present and “Yet to Come,” working under the supervision of the stern but fair taskmaster Jacob Marley and with the help of a large and sophisticated support staff, have been doing this thing for decades. They’ve got this!
Now, when you think of the prominent song-and-dance artists of our time, the names of Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds probably don’t spring to mind — and they shouldn’t, because you’re not INSANE — but Ferrell has long been willing to go all-out with his pretty decent voice when the material requires it (“Step Brothers,” “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga”), and Reynolds proves to be a gamer who can at least carry a tune to the end of a number, and has some pretty impressive dance moves as well. (It doesn’t hurt that the songs in “Spirited” come courtesy of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the team behind “La La Land,” “Dear Evan Hansen” and “The Greatest Showman.”)
As we get our first glimpses of a high-tech command center that looks like a start-up headquarters crossed with a museum, we meet Will Ferrell’s Present; Sunita Mani’s Past, and “Yet to Come,” a hulking figure played by Loren Woods but voiced by Tracy Morgan. After a prologue in which a Karen who is actually named Karen (Rose Byrne) awakens on Christmas morning with a change of heart about calling the police on the neighbors and stealing their packages, it’s time for a big musical production number.
“Why are they singing?” asks a new ghost. “Because this is a musical,” comes the meta reply. “All of this. The Afterlife [is a musical].”
The song, titled “Christmas Morning Feeling,” goes a little something like his:
Playing our parts
Changing hearts one by one
Everything’s super holly jolly
It’s like we’re all on Molly
But it’s a natural high!
HA. Once Karen has been saved and her story memorialized with a display in the Hall of the Redeemed, it’s on to the next “perp,” as they’re known. Present has his eye on one Clint Briggs (Ryan Reynolds), a handsome, cynical, manipulative, cold-blooded media consultant who sings to a roomful of potential clients, “It’s not enough for folks to love you, they gotta hate your rivals more!” Marley warns that Clint isn’t redeemable, but Present says he represents a great challenge: “He’s like the perfect combination of Mussolini and Seacrest!”
Flash forward to a year later, and it’s time for the trio of ghosts to do their thing. Past doesn’t exactly haunt Clint; it’s more like she hooks up with him, because she’s been dead for decades and he IS hot. Once Clint is convinced he’s actually been targeted for redemption, he says to Marley, “Out of all the people on the planet — murderers, racists, people who do gender reveal parties — I’m the guy you’re gonna haunt?”
Fair point, but those other examples are beyond redemption.
Even as Present tries to make Clint see the light and become a better person, the wily Clint turns the tables on Present and starts grilling him about HIS backstory. Meanwhile, Present is smitten with Clint’s kindly assistant, Kimberly (Octavia Spencer), who can somehow see him even though he’s a ghost and only Clint is supposed to be able to see him. Ah, but then we wouldn’t get a touching romance between Present and Kimberly, complete with touching love ballad!
“Spirited” has a bloated running time of 2 hours and 7 minutes and careens all over the place, from a trip back to Dickensian times to some vignettes in Clint’s younger days, when he was emotionally incapable of handling the terminal illness of his sister (Andrea Anders) and refused to become the guardian of his niece Wren (Marlow Barkley). What a jerk! Maybe Clint really IS beyond redemption. But wait …
Well. Even though this is “A Christmas Carol” told from a different angle, it’s still “A Christmas Carol.” With Ferrell and Reynolds striking just the right combination of hipster comedy with genuine sincerity, and the musical numbers working as parody but also toe-tapping entertainment, “Spirited” is … that’s right … a big cup of holiday cheer for the whole family.