Will Ferrell is to Christmas movies as Mariah Carey is to Christmas music. This is a possible conclusion, anyway, after Spirited, the latest outside-the-box adaptation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which proves a strong return to Christmas fare after the actor charmed our socks off in Elf two decades ago. Sadly, Ferrell’s bank account isn’t benefitting like Carey’s is. But he’s now given us two strong holiday movies that you can appreciate with a lot less guilt. (And though the movie debuted on AppleTV+ way back on November 18th, which should mean it has missed its window on ReelGood, this week is the week to watch it.)


Of course, Ryan Reynolds would dispute the idea that this is a Will Ferrell star vehicle, especially since he’s nearly ten years younger and several times the bigger star. Then again, when you’ve got Buddy the Elf on your resume, what more do you really need?

Ferrell plays the Ghost of Christmas Present, the central figure in a team of ghosts who orchestrate annual Christmas hauntings to try to redeem a miserable soul. He’s flanked by the Ghost of Christmas Past (Sunita Mani, horny and hilarious) and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (Tracy Morgan, cloaked in reaper’s garb and doomed only to point a bony finger during the haunts, try as he may to utter a word). They’ve got a whole production studio devoted year-round to researching and staging next year’s haunt, complete with sets from the life of the “perp.” The big boss who begins each haunt is Jacob Marley (Patrick Page). If that name sounds familiar, it was indeed this age-old ceremony that once converted renowned humbug Ebenezer Scrooge.

And the current year will be a doozy. Christmas Present wants to stave off his retirement by reeling in a truly big fish, Clint Briggs (Reynolds), a wicked media consultant with a penchant for cooking up fake scandals and getting consumers to act against their own best interests. He’s also a pretty derelict uncle to his niece, Wren (Marlow Barkley). Because he’s the Scrooge stand-in, he’s got a Bob Cratchett in the form of Kimberly (Octavia Spencer), a gifted member of his team who’s highly conflicted about the work she does. Clint’s file shows that he is an “unredeemable,” so Christmas Present has a tall order amidst a journey that will have more personal resonance for him than he could have envisioned.

The 127-minute running time of Sean Anders’ film, which threatens to weigh down an otherwise breezy pace, is explained by the other thing we haven’t yet told you about this movie: It’s a musical. Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have written a dozen or so cheery earworms to accompany this material, just as they did for The Greatest Showman and La La Land. (The less said about Dear Evan Hansen the better.) Although the musical numbers do at times bloat the length, they’re also the element that will help Spirited endure into a classic, if that’s what’s yet to come.


Also elongating Spirited is its ambition. You won’t be surprised to learn that the songs are not the only thing to add dimension to this A Christmas Carol. As it effectively becomes a buddy comedy (no pun intended) for Ferrell and Reynolds, it requires more time on screen for Ferrell than his third of the haunting structure would dictate. That’s because there’s as much to explore with his character as there is with Clint Briggs, with his role in the history of the hauntings taking shape as we move forward.

Aside from how Spirited connects with its songs and the always useful revisitation of its themes, this is a comedy at its core, and a recognisably Ferrell comedy at that. Remember that Ferrell 1970s basketball comedy Semi-Pro, featuring the great comic bit where to call someone a “jive turkey” was the ultimate taboo insult? That joke is back and better than ever in a song called “Good Afternoon,” which goes on at length about the “sick burn” it was in Dickensian times to dismiss someone from your doorstep with that two-word kiss-off. Ferrell comedies in recent years have been a bit more wobbly, but the clear-eyed delivery of the Funny or Die mentality he’s been honing for a quarter century really carries Spirited.


And don’t count out the sentiment, especially at this time of year. There’s some moving material involving Clint’s sister (Andrea Anders), who died of cancer, and what he did or did not do in the time of her greatest need. We see how Clint got here and where he’s going if he doesn’t shape up. And though Clint is happy enough to brush any of this stuff off – he’s driven to beat Christmas Present and prove that this stuff won’t work on him – we of course see it, and feel it just as we did when Ebenezer Scrooge whiffed so piteously in this past choices. And because of course he does, Clint sees it eventually too.

The factory where they concoct the haunts, which resembles a futuristic media command centre with a holiday touch, lies in the background as a comic constant, giving Mani, Morgan and Page more to do than they would otherwise have, and continuing to tickle us with the little ways we see the sausage made. Spirited may be a bit overstuffed, but if so, it’s overstuffed like a stocking bursting with treats.


Spirited is currently streaming on AppleTV+.

8 / 10