Like many onscreen Scrooges before him, Ryan Reynolds’ character in “Spirited” is told that he will face his past, present and future. But he surprises even the spirit haunting him upon raising his hand and asking: “Like ‘A Christmas Carol’? The Dickens story? The Bill Murray movie with Bobcat Goldthwait?”
“Yes, yes!” he is told. “Like the Dickens book, and the Bill Murray movie, and every other adaptation nobody asked for!”
This irreverent humor is part of what makes “Spirited” — now playing in select theaters and streaming beginning Nov. 18 on Apple TV+ — a Christmas miracle in itself. With some strategic reframing, updated characters and many weeks of dance rehearsals, “Spirited” refreshes Hollywood’s most overtold, and arguably outdated, morality tale as a topical musical comedy that manages to be astute about our divided culture without losing the source material’s streak of sincerity.
From the opening frames, “Spirited” stands out from other clever retreads of Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella by zooming in on its three ghosts. “Scrooge is always the one with the character arc, but the ghosts are the masterminds of the mission to transform him,” says director Sean Anders.
Ryan Reynolds, Will Ferrell and Octavia Spencer team up for “Spirited,” a flashy musical-comedy-fantasy update of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”
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“A few years ago, my writing partner, John Morris, and I started talking about what the planning of the whole thing must be like — they can’t just show up on the day and haunt him, they have to go through his entire life and decide what they’re going to show him, right?”
“Spirited” envisions the overnight operation as an elaborate, yearlong endeavor: carefully choosing someone to transform, meticulously re-creating key moments in that person’s life, painstakingly rehearsing monologues to inspire major changes. And the three ghosts — Christmas Past (Sunita Mani), Present (Will Ferrell) and Yet-to-Come (voiced by Tracy Morgan) — are power players in a massive corporation, complete with retirement planning and a human resources department.
“This story has been done a lot, but the concept of looking at it from the inside, of how the sausage is made, was the reason to do it,” Ferrell tells The Times. “It takes some chances and is out-of-the-box in terms of what you expect it’s going to be because it also looks at the burden of the ghosts, and whether or not what they’ve been doing for centuries is even moving the needle in today’s world.”
Ferrell’s Christmas Present wrestles with that question while trying to redeem this year’s Scrooge: Clint Briggs (Reynolds), a ruthless media consultant whose job is described as “creating controversy, conflict and disinformation for the benefit of his clients worldwide.” According to Anders, he’s “very charismatic and a pretty fun guy to be around,” but he might be more harmful to society than the classic’s grouchy miser, not to mention more relatable to the movie’s modern viewers.
“What’s made Clint Briggs this year’s Scrooge isn’t just that he’s an active Twitter user — although that does qualify you enough in and of itself — but that he’s harnessing these forces to create controversy and division,” Reynolds says. “I am somebody who lives in the muck and mire of social media from time to time, and I see how absurd and crazy and toxic it can be. ... We’re just constantly pushing farther and farther away from each other.”
The timing of the film’s release, coming in the same week as Twitter’s rapid unraveling under new Chief Executive Elon Musk, underscores its allusions to culture wars, fake news and trolls, though here the truth is softened by the conventions of the movie musical — something Anders and Morris have been wanting to make for years.
The songs, written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, along with Khiyon Hursey, Sukari Jones and Mark Sonnenblick, are insightful about what Paul calls “the main question of the story, which is: Am I able to overcome the worst parts of me to become a better version of myself?” But they are also jam-packed with punchlines and undercut by onscreen eye-rolling about the fact that, yes, someone is starting to sing again.
When Clint is introduced — at a conference of Christmas tree growers, natch — Reynolds channels the charm of Fred Astaire in an elaborate, super-smooth musical number about the exploitability of human nature. “We leaned into that which is Ryan Reynolds — charming, good looking, a consummate storyteller,” says choreographer Chloe Arnold. “It’s so fun to watch, but it’s also to illustrate how Clint is this master manipulator.”
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Adding to that message is Octavia Spencer as Kimberly, a character who, though she works for Clint as Bob Crachit does Scrooge, sends a very different message by beginning to confront her own compromised morals. “She sings about that moment when you’re thinking about who you’ve been and who you want to be and how those two versions of yourself conflict, and questioning whether the decisions you’ve made are ones that reflect your values,” says Spencer.
But of all the changes to “A Christmas Carol” that “Spirited” makes, the most astounding is its conclusion, which goes against the ending of its source material. You’ll have to see the film to know how it goes down, but needless to say this Scrooge doesn’t end up throwing money to the masses on Christmas morning.
“I’ve been a huge fan of the original ‘Christmas Carol’ my whole life, and we have fun with all the tropes,” Anders says. “But one reason I wanted to make this movie is that I don’t think people can change overnight. It just doesn’t happen that way; it takes work.”
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+
Ashley Lee is a staff reporter at the Los Angeles Times, where she writes about theater, movies, television and the bustling intersection of the stage and the screen. An alum of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Critics Institute and Poynter’s Power of Diverse Voices, she leads workshops on arts journalism at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. She was previously a New York-based editor at the Hollywood Reporter and has written for the Washington Post, Backstage and American Theatre, among others. She is currently working remotely alongside her dog, Oliver.