Review: Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds bring holiday bromance to musical-comedy ‘Spirited’

Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell hold hands in the movie "Spirited."
Ryan Reynolds, left, and Will Ferrell in the movie “Spirited.”
(Claire Folger / Apple TV+)
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“Spirited,” the umpteenth screen incarnation of Charles Dickens’ evergreen “A Christmas Carol,” is such an amusing, buoyant and good-natured entertainment that it’s not hard to forgive this flashy musical-comedy-fantasy’s missteps. Grinchy viewers, however, may sing a different tune.

The story’s meta, at times convoluted reimagining, in which rules are seemingly made to be broken (and gleefully so), finds a trio of ghosts representing Christmas Past (Sunita Mani), Present (Will Ferrell) and Yet-to-Come (a shrouded Loren Woods, voiced by Tracy Morgan) tasked every Christmas Eve with rehabilitating one dastardly being for the good of humanity. As it is tidily explained: “We haunt someone, change them into a better person and then we sing about it.”

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It’s quite an expansive and corporatized operation, led by cranky, chain-rattling boss Jacob Marley (Patrick Page). He also oversees an army of “support ghosts” who research the potential “perps” (those ripe for transformation) and help plan the hauntings.


Present, a veteran ghost who “died before there was indoor plumbing,” is torn between finally retiring from the trade and living a “real” life back on Earth or continuing to do the noble work of saving souls. So when he finds someone who’s so far-reachingly problematic as to be considered “unredeemable” — glib, opportunistic marketing magnate Clint Briggs (Ryan Reynolds) — he knows he has at least one more rescue mission in him. “He’s like the perfect combination of Mussolini and Seacrest,” Present enthuses to a dubious Marley.

Against his boss’ better judgment, Present invades Clint’s unabashedly selfish life, turns it inside out and upside down — with all the bells and whistles at his supernatural (and the film’s budgetary) disposal — to try to make this Scrooge proxy face his past mistakes and admit the error of his ways. But in this deeply cynical and divisive day and age, is change even possible?

So many twists, turns, reveals and inversions to the action follow — some of which are hugely entertaining, others head-scratching — that too many specifics might edge into spoiler territory. Suffice to say, the road to redeemability is no cakewalk for Clint or Present as they eventually form an unlikely bromance of sorts, replete with a few rather Broadway-worthy musical numbers penned by dynamic duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (“Dear Evan Hansen,” “La La Land”) and choreographed by Chloe Arnold. The Victorian London-set “Good Afternoon” is a total showstopper, while “Do a Little Good,” “That Christmas Morning Feelin’” and the (literally) splashy “Ripple” stand out as well.

Octavia Spencer smiles while surrounded by other partygoers in the movie "Spirited."
Octavia Spencer in the movie “Spirited.”
(Claire Folger / Apple TV+)

The plot’s whirling mix also includes Kimberly (the always welcome Octavia Spencer), Clint’s conflicted, right-hand exec and opposition research pro, who will undergo her own emotional shift as she and Present find themselves romantically — and, to be honest, not that convincingly — drawn to each other. (That she can see the ghostly Present while other folks can’t is one of many just-go-with-it bits.)

Clint’s beloved late sister, Carrie (Andrea Anders), her young daughter, Wren (Marlow Barkley), and Clint and Carrie’s brother, Owen (Joe Tippett), also factor into both Clint’s past and present issues. A story strand involving his cavalier “media-savvy” advice to Wren about how to win a middle school election — and its potential backfiring — adds a timely if overly engineered touch. It’s just one of the movie’s handful of “teachable moments.”


Director Sean Anders, who co-wrote the busy, quippy, often digressive script with “Instant Family” and “Daddy’s Home” collaborator John Morris, largely keeps the film moving apace — though at more than two hours, some judicious cutting might have been a plus.

Performances by a nicely modulated Ferrell (back in Christmas-movie mode for the first time since 2003’s “Elf”), a sweetly earnest Spencer and an appealingly kinetic Reynolds are enjoyable, even if there may be no recording contracts in their futures. Possible “Dancing With the Stars” gigs are another story.


Rated: PG-13, for language, some suggestive material and thematic elements.

Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes

Playing: Starts Nov. 11, Regency Bruin Theatre, Westwood and Regal LA Live, downtown Los Angeles; available Nov. 18 on Apple TV+