Sean Anders (“Daddy’s Home”) co-wrote and directed this admittedly clever variation on a tale that has been told by everyone from the Muppets to Bill Murray, but this is a different kind of Scrooge tale. What if the ghosts that haunted Ebenezer Scrooge that fateful night did the same thing every year to a different troubled soul? “Spirited” envisions an entire spiritual industry built around redeeming one relentless fool—and yes, it gets into the idea that so much energy spent on one person in an era of social media success jobs manipulating thousands is like a drop in a bucket. Still Facilitator Jacob Marley (Patrick Page) believes there is value in their process, and he leads a massive team that investigates each year’s selected misers.
The team thinks they have a perfect choice in a Vancouver hotel manager who yells at the janitors, but the Christmas Present Ghost (Will Ferrell) runs into a speaker at the hotel named Clint Briggs (Ryan Reynolds), realizing that he is the white whale. Briggs is a social media manipulator, introduced to sing a song – oh yes, this is a full throat – about waging the war on Christmas for profit. He is the kind of businessman who doesn’t see moral lines as long as his client wins, even if the client is his niece Wren (Marlow Barkley), whom he convinces to do opposition research and vilify her rival on social media for a position at the school. Clint’s assistant Kimberly (Octavia Spencer) appears to have been worn down by her boss’s moral failings, but Clint does not see himself as a force for evil. He’s just one of those guys who believes that striking first is the best strategy. (And it’s a minor flaw of the film that the writers seem unwilling to make Clint too “irredeemable” and risk alienating viewers from one of their lovable leads.)
Ferrell’s ghost becomes obsessed with redeeming Clint, as do the other spirits (Sunita Mani plays Past and Tracy Morgan voices Yet to Come) are basically sidelined. Surprisingly, “Spirited” becomes as much The Ghost of Christmas Present’s tale as it is Clint’s, as Ferrell’s character wants to leave it all behind and become human again, especially after finding an unexpected reason to join the mortal coil again.
All of this is told through the hyperactive energy of what at times feels like a draft of a stage musical in both function and form. Musical numbers explode with choruses of backup singers/dancers playing to one side of a set as if standing on a stage. The sense that you’re watching a filmed stage musical extends to the production design, which often looks like cheap sets or green-screen backdrops rather than 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, pushing this overly long musical to over two hours.