Sean Anders (“Daddy’s Home”) co-wrote and directed this admittedly clever twist on a tale that’s been told by everyone from the Muppets to Bill Murray, but it’s a different kind of Scrooge tale. What if the ghosts that haunt Ebenezer Scrooge that fateful night did the same thing every year to a different troubled soul? “Spirited” imagines an entire spiritual industry built around the redemption of a relentless fool – and, yes, it goes into the idea that so much energy spent on one person in an age of social media blockbuster jobs that handling thousands of people is like a drop of water in a bucket. Still, host Jacob Marley (Patrick Page) believes their process has value, and he leads a massive team that searches for the chosen miser every year.
The team thinks they have a perfect pick at a Vancouver hotel that’s screaming at concierges, but the Christmas present ghost (Will Ferrell) runs into a hotel guest speaker named Clint Briggs (Ryan Reynolds), realizing that he is the white whale. Briggs is a social media manipulator, introduced by singing a song — oh yeah, it’s a full-throated musical — about weaponizing the Christmas war for profit. He’s the kind of businessman who doesn’t see moral lines until his client wins, even if his client is his niece Wren (Marlow Barkley), whom he convinces to research the opposition and to shame her rival on social media for a position. at school. Clint’s assistant, Kimberly (Octavia Spencer), seems to have been exhausted by her boss’ moral failures, but Clint doesn’t see herself as a force for evil. He’s one of those guys who believes that striking first is the best strategy. (And it’s a minor flaw in the film that the writers seem unwilling to make Clint too “unsalvageable” and risk alienating viewers against one of their lovable leads.)
Ferrell’s ghost becomes obsessed with redeeming Clint, even as the other spirits (Sunita Mani voices Past and Tracy Morgan Yet to Come) are essentially sidelined. Surprisingly, “Spirited” becomes as much The Ghost of Christmas Present’s tale as Clint’s, as Ferrell’s character wants to leave everything behind and become human again, especially after finding an unexpected reason to join the deadly serpent.
All of this is told through the overactive energy of what at times feels like a sketch of a musical in both function and form. The musical numbers explode with choruses of backup singers/dancers performing to one side of a platter as if on stage. The feeling that you’re watching a filmed musical extends to the production design, which often looks like cheap sets or green screen backdrops instead of actual physical spaces. And the writing has that Broadway tendency to hit a few of the same beats over and over again, especially in the film’s final acts, which pushes this overly long musical to over two hours.