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REVIEW – “Spirited”: No Holly Jolly Lost in Slight Holiday Miss

In the last year, the reality further set in for any dashed hopes of a sequel to Will Ferrell’s festive favorite Elf. The sad losses of both James Caan and Ed Asner certainly lessened the opportunity of a complete reunion. The seasonal candor of its star, paired with a healthy distancing between projects may only have worked well in his favor to return to a candy-coated wintertime atmosphere. Albeit, with a different sort of story format to tinker in, stopping just shy of reinvention. Spirited sees a modern, Broadway-scale diversion from the moral thrill of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. To find the ghosts’ perspective, possessing conflicts equally immeasurable to whom they’re spooking, equates to newfound emotional weight. Not so much a clear path to carry between eras, overplayed though still jubilant.

The concept of Scrooge, Marley and the ghosts of past, present, and future takes a fresh lease in the 21st century. Now it’s a business model looking to one new mark a year, an individual of the world who’s too much of a curmudgeon for their own good, reform them by or around December 25th. Present (Will Ferrell) has been in his post for around two hundred years and meets all the thresholds for retirement. Not that he hasn’t thought of returning to the land of the mortals, he just lives for his work. He’s up for a challenge, and he gets it by going slightly over Marley’s (Patrick Page) head.

Aided by Past (Sunita Mani) and Yet-To-Come (the disembodied voice of Tracy Morgan), he begins research on Clint Briggs (Ryan Reynolds). He’s an applicable target – grouchy, deceptive, a marketing whiz with an excess of regretful baggage. Namely, what his late sister Carrie (Andrea Anders) had left behind. He’s much too abrasive for anything beyond business; to help niece Wren (Marlow Barkley) with a mud-slinging campaign toward her opposition for class president doesn’t come without cynical trepidation. His stoic secretary Kimberly (Octavia Spencer) is a pivotal rock, following the lead, while not far from her personal desires, to clear her conscience, and to make new friends out of Present. Whenever he’s not butting heads with their shared contact, exposing their fear and penitence.

Pairing Ferrell and Reynolds together is like a battle of quarterbacks from opposing forces of the comedy spectrum. Styles might differ, but attitudes blend without fault. Each is the jock of their respective locker rooms, king of jabs, jockeying for the best landing, and for greater consistency on screen. That alone accentuates their chemistry and nearly complements it. Director Sean Anders (Instant Family), in his third go with Ferrell, is fully accustomed to staging a high-energy playground for his actors to frolic in, building up their camaraderie. And here, especially, boost their vocal prowess. His experience can only go a certain distance, having crafted one-off musical numbers in the past (i.e., that stirring rendition of “Do They Know It’s Christmas” from Daddy’s Home 2). Nothing to this degree, however, and it shows. It exhausts his limits, creativity unwavering as sequences and set pieces exude legit theater gloss.

Right from its prologue, a demonstration of the ghouls’ abilities on a curmudgeonly suburbanite (an appropriately placed Rose Byrne cameo), leading to its first lyrical routine, Spirited embraces its stagecraft like hot cocoa. Sweet on the tongue, feigning a fleeting sense of nostalgia, its mileage varying based on how careful the recipe is. Anders, with co-writer John Morris, opts for water over milk. Little do they realize, leaning mostly on wattage over plot substance might protect the mood, but jumble up cohesiveness. Navigating between realms and jumping in and out of songs is not as seamless as Chloe Howard’s tap-intensive choreography. The film does stop in its tracks to accommodate these moments of utter decadence, bolstered by Pasek and Paul’s libretto. A far more substantial soundtrack slate compared to their efforts earlier in the season on Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile, though still miles away from their La Land bump.

Anders does find his avenues to punch the gas again after the silent applause dies down. The Oliver-inspired “Good Afternoon” is the most inventive moment of salute to be found here. His lens does sharpen just long enough to encapsulate Present’s rooted insecurities, his longing for reconnecting with mortality. Jagged as it appears to start, the film’s empathic core remains undiminished. Ferrell is no Jimmy Stewart or Albert Finney. He can only infuse either methodology while slowly enjoying his third wave as an actor, mature and erudite, with the faintest snuff of eccentrics. Nothing unlike what he pulled off two years prior with the equally musical Eurovision. The Dickensian undertones, and mild New England charm, both a workout for DoP Kramer Morganthau (The Many Saints of Newark), do plenty to keep Will’s feet firmly on the ground. Even while bouncing about to a playback track.

Spirited does quite a bit of shifting around, tiresomely hitting the pause button. As if the otherwise glittering soundtrack doesn’t quite fit the rest of Anders’ lengthy modulation, roadside attractions on what should be a steady pulse of momentum. So, it amazes me how this literal show-stopping strives not to pierce the film’s heartbeat in twain. The music, visual polish, and lively dramaturgy are valuable stepping stones in leaving the effort very entertaining, and dogmatic even with its faithfulness to Dickens’ principles. Ferrell and Reynolds prove how prepared they can be with new screen challenges, fashioning what may be an eventual staple for holidays yet to come. Even still, it still lacks half a brain to look beyond its gimmicks, and truly reach classic territory. Too many unaltered visions prove it struggles to move that needle. (C+; 3/5 Horns Up!)

Spirited expands in its theatrical release and streams on Apple TV+ November 18; rated PG-13 for language, some suggestive material and thematic elements; 127 minutes.