From the director of That’s My Boy and the writer of Horrible Bosses (the second one), Dumb and Dumber (the second one) and both (the first and second) Daddy’s Home movies comes Spirited, a Christmas-themed musical that promises festive fun, but resembles something that an elf slave was forced to slap together over the summer, while Santa Claus went on vacation. Billed as a musical reimagining of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the film is about as cheerful an experience as having to deal with Amazon customer care on Christmas Eve because they lost your present in transit.
But we’ve invoked the wrong corporate overlords. Spirit is the first real attempt at a blockbuster-level film by Apple, a streamer that has so far remained rather unambitious when it comes to aggressive expansion. But to help its cause, Apple has hired two proper, above-the-title movie stars.
Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell split a Laverne and Shirley credit — that’s the curious semi-equal billing situation that stars of a similar stature negotiate in two-hander projects — in a movie that seems to have devoted 80% of the budget to their salaries. That’s probably a big reason why Spirited is among the most plastic-looking films that either actor has ever been a part of, and that’s saying something for Reynolds, who has dedicated himself in recent years to doing nothing else.
While his public persona became increasingly indistinguishable from Deadpool, Reynolds appeared in a series of hit films that have sort of melded into one another; films like Free Guy and The Adam Project, and the worst offender, Red Notice. Not only are these movies depressingly one-note, they’ve actually contributed to a decline in the quality of populist entertainment coming out of Hollywood. Spirited is more of the same.
The film reaches its absolute outer limit of ambition when it presents Dickens’ familiar story through the perspective of The Ghost of Christmas Present, played by Ferrell like a corporate drone stuck in middle-management. The Ghost works at a firm whose job is to identify and convert self-centred ‘unredeemables’ by taking them on a journey into their past, present, and future.
Reynolds plays a social media spin doctor named… something. It doesn’t matter. Because he’s playing the same smug, wise-cracking, hustler that he plays in all his movies. I challenge you to name one character that Reynolds has played in the last 10 years besides Deadpool. It’s impossible. He’s like the Ayushmann Khurrana of Hollywood. Must every movie that he stars in reshape itself to suit his sensibilities?
Why couldn’t Spirited be a straightforward Christmastime musical; why did it have to be injected, no, pumped full of Reynolds’ trademark wry comedy? Musicals are supposed to be earnest. That’s what gives them the power to convince you that characters can simply break into song and dance when they want, and act like it’s something that they normally do. Which is why most musicals set the tone very early on, so that you subconsciously accept the internal logic of the world. But Spirited feels the need to wink at the audience (almost) every time someone clears their throat to belt a number, as if to say, ‘Yes, we know this is goofy too, but hang in there.”
Immediately after the first song, a couple of characters acknowledge the sudden tonal shift on screen. They tell each other (and by proxy the audience) that this is how it’s going to be. And later, when The Ghost’s ‘boss’ senses that he’s about to break into song, he cuts him short. “There’s no need for a whole big number here,” he says. Is this where we’ve arrived at as a culture? We’re making excuses for why people are singing in musicals? And you know what’s most disheartening? Instead of ignoring his boss and ploughing on, The Ghost actually stops in his tracks, and walks out of frame with a shrug. We don’t get the number after all.
It’s one thing for the song and dance sequences to have been staged in a manner that completely lacks personality, but Spirited seems to have been based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the genre. Musicals are defined by their choreography, their sweeping storytelling, and a love for big-screen cinema that practically oozes out of every frame; they’re a reminder of a time gone by, brimming with romance even when they’re about bread-stealing convicts. Musicals most definitely do not need to rely on stars, or quips that undermine their own sincerity. Ironically, what makes musicals special… is their spirit.
When Reynolds’ character understands that he’s basically caught in the plot of A Christmas Carol — because existing independently would rob this movie of a chance at making meta jokes — he asks The Ghost if his suspicions are accurate, and The Ghost snaps back and says that yes, they are. Spirited, he says, is ‘like the Dickens book, and the Bill Murray movie, and every other adaptation that nobody asked for.’ The last part is true.
Director – Sean Anders
Cast – Ryan Reynolds, Will Ferrell, Octavia Spencer, Sunita Mani, Tracy Morgan
Rating – 2/5