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Spirited review – Apple’s musical take on A Christmas Carol fails to find the magic

Ryan Reynolds and festive sincerity prove a sour mix in this cynical new adaptation. Where are the Muppets when you need them?

If there is one integral ingredient required by both musicals and Christmas films, it’s sincerity. Both genres ask a lot of their audiences in terms of suspension of disbelief and general good will, rewarding your investment with explosions of emotion and good cheer. It’s for this reason that Spirited feels so disheartening from the off – during its very first musical number, a background character chimes in to complainingly ask: “Is this a musical?” It’s the first of many examples of the Ryan Reynolds Brand (snark, meta self-awareness etc.) proving to be completely at odds with an adaptation of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, making for a film that feels far more cynical than it does festive.

If you’re going to adapt A Christmas Carol again, you need a strong USP and, to its credit, Spirited opens with a decent hook – the Christmas hauntings that turned Scrooge into a saint are actually an annual event; scheduled, planned, and executed by the afterlife’s more theatrical denizens. After a successful haunting, the team get to celebrating, but the Ghost of Christmas Present (Will Ferrell) is feeling unfulfilled, wanting to make a real, worldwide difference with the next job before he takes his ghostly retirement.

He gets his chance in the form of Clint Briggs (Reynolds), a multi-millionaire marketing consultant who specialises in disinformation and political divisions to fuel his profitable fires. Branded “unredeemable,” Briggs is Christmas Present’s white whale, a way to prove his own value to himself, and so the stage is set for a haunting that, inevitably, will change both men. It’s a decent enough update of one of the most adapted stories ever written, but poor internal logic make the stakes almost impossible to buy into.

To give Reynolds the chance to sarcastically riff during his haunting, Spirited builds a world where A Christmas Carol actually exists alongside the ghosts, meaning that Briggs knows from the start exactly how his three-ghost nightmare is going to go. There’s no real fear or intrigue – he knows it’s fake and scripted, so how could he possibly be affected enough to make a real change in his life. It’s a question the film never satisfyingly answers, making the big soppy ending feel completely hollow, a demand of the source material rather than a natural finale for this particular story.

Ferrell and Reynolds are both decent enough here – though Reynolds’s lab-tested charm means it’s hard to ever really buy him as a cold-hearted Scrooge-esque villain – but there’s a general dearth of feeling from moment to moment. There’s no Cratchit family to hammer home the visceral, personal effects of Briggs’s selfishness and the supporting characters exist purely as vehicles for a litany of deeply uninspired jokes about social media – there’s a laziness to the script that makes the two-hour-plus runtime really drag.

Bar the big showstopper right at the end, which pays a warm and welcome tribute to the film’s crew, the musical numbers aren’t much more inspiring either. Director Sean Anders has previously only marshalled passable, improv-heavy comedies like Daddy’s Home and Horrible Bosses 2, and the step up to the expanded scope and difficulty of a musical proves too much for him. The tunes are catchy enough in the moment but none are real earworms while most of the choreography feels like an afterthought, dancers just going through the motions in the background.

Too long and sweary to really appeal to kids while also too smarmy to replace the classic adaptations in any older family’s Christmas rotation, Spirited doesn’t feel like it’s for anyone. It also, fatally, just doesn’t feel Christmassy enough; where the season itself was baked into both Scrooge’s nastiness and redemption, for Briggs it’s just window-dressing. Spirited may be the shiny and new Christmas Carol model for Xmas 2022, but you’ll be much better off just putting the ol’ reliable Muppets on for the hundredth time.

Spirited is released in UK cinemas and Apple TV+ on 18 November.

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