On a dark and rainy night, a woman kneels before a tombstone as a menacing cloaked figure looms over her, stretching out an unnaturally long, bony finger.
She crawls – and complains a little – before sinking completely into the ground.
“Don’t worry about her,” a friendly-sounding narrator tells us. “In a few minutes she will wake up in her bed, dry, rested and hopefully a whole new person.”
It’s the voice of Will Ferrell who portrays the spirit of the Christmas present in Spirited, a festive musical comedy that’s out in select theaters and debuting on Apple TV+ this week.
Yes, as a character will later admit, this is another adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” that “nobody asked for.”
But here’s the thing: we’re glad we have it.
That’s largely because it stars the appealing duo of Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds, which is every bit as entertaining as you’d expect.
However, “Spirited” also benefits from the work of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the talented songwriting tandem whose credits include “La La Land”, “Dear Evan Hansen” and “The Greatest Showman”. They pack the story with well-crafted melodies that work, although the two male actors most responsible for it aren’t exactly singing giants. (Ferrell brings more to the table in this department than Reynolds, which isn’t surprising given years of comedy that often involves vocals, but the latter holds his own.)
Ferrell’s Present has been in the pernicious business of changing people for many decades, collaborating with Past (Sunita Mani from “Mr. Robot”) and Yet to Come (voiced by Tracy Morgan, “Coming 2 America”), the one want bigger roles in their productions – he’s been working on catchphrases – although he gets stage fright when he tries to speak at work.
They have a huge tech-savvy support team and a boss in Jacob Marley (Patrick Page, “In the Heights”) who must find the target for next year’s supernatural production, the humbuggy guy or the girl whose transformation into Hearts of Kings will have a domino effect on many others. He likes a nasty hotel manager who has hundreds working behind him, but Present doesn’t feel comfortable.
He has his eye on Reynolds’ Clint Briggs, a media consultant who admittedly charges “ridiculously huge fees”, creates disinformation, confusion and chaos on behalf of his clients and, perhaps most importantly, believes people cannot change.
“He’s like the perfect combination of Mussolini and Seacrest,” quips an awed present.
Jacob thinks otherwise, but gives in to Present’s desire to prevent another musical number from breaking out. It’s easy to forget that Spirited is a musical, so Jacob’s repeated surprise when a song begins is sometimes reminiscent of our own.
We’ve all got to accept it, though, and the elaborate ‘Good Afternoon’ number – in which Present and Clint visit a place where that simple phrase wasn’t so innocuous – contains a really fun cameo and might be reason enough to stream it “Spirit”. (Speaking of cameos, the woman learning her lesson in the opening scene is played by Rose Byrne, and Jimmy Fallon portrays himself as the host of his late-night show.)
At the end of the day, though, this is buddy comedy, so while Clint has a few lessons to learn, he’ll also have something to teach Present before their adventure together is over. As it turns out, Present has had the opportunity to live life as a real person, contemplated a simple life with a family, and experienced “one of those newfangled mouth kisses.”
He has an immediate connection to Clint’s assistant, Kimberly (Octavia Spencer, “Thunder Force”), who is understandably concerned about the latest assignment the boss has given her.
Spirited is directed by the dependable Sean Anders (Horrible Bosses 2, Instant Family), who co-wrote the screenplay with John Morris.
The romp isn’t as tightly constructed as you would hope and can be a little chaotic. However, Ferrell (“Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga”, “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy”) can make comedic gold out of almost nothing, and he’s been given much more than nothing to work with here.
Reynolds (“Free Guy”, “Deadpool”), on the other hand, is so naturally attractive that we never really believe Clint that he’s such a bad guy — but to be fair, the movie probably wouldn’t work if he did would. Mani’s Past is definitely into the handsome bad boy and at one point asks Present to describe the smell of Clint’s hair.
“Spirited” has a lot of fun little gags that work, along with a few glitches.
It all adds up to an early little Christmas present that could last well into the New Year given its availability on a major streaming platform.
“Spirited” is rated PG-13 for language, some suggestive materials, and thematic elements. Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes.