Streaming

Ryan Reynolds, Will Ferrell make a ‘Spirited’ attempt at retelling a Christmas classic

Apple TV+'s contemporary adaptation of "A Christmas Carol" is worth a watch despite its flaws.

Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell in "Spirited."
Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell in "Spirited." Apple TV

In the opening scene of “Spirited,” Apple TV+’s contemporary, PG-13, musical take on Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” the Ghost of Christmas Present (Will Ferrell) lays out exactly what audiences are about to see over the next two hours: “We haunt someone, change them into a better person, and then we sing about it.”

Moments after launching into the opening musical number, however, a group of ancillary characters have the following conversation:

“Why are they singing?”

“Because this is a musical.”

“What is?”

“All of this. The afterlife.”

Advertisement:

“Aw, come on. Really?”

In making “Spirited,” Apple hired the brightest young musical songwriting duo in Benj Pasek and Justin Paul — the duo behind achingly earnest works like “Dear Evan Hansen” and “La La Land” — to compose its songs. And along with Ferrell, Apple hired Ryan Reynolds as its second lead, an A-lister whose comedy stylings involve snide asides, fourth-wall breaking, and generally playing the guy who is too cool for whatever movie he’s in.

It’s a really tough balance to strike, and “Spirited” gets away with it for portions of the film. There are genuinely heartfelt moments, and enough tweaks on the Dickensian formula that audiences won’t see coming. There are also many fully earned laughs — almost a given when Ferrell and Reynolds are your leads. But when “Spirited” veers too deeply into meta-humor, the Christmas magic dissipates.

In “Spirited,” the Ghosts of Christmas Past (Sunita Mani, “GLOW”), Present (Ferrell), and Future (voiced by Tracy Morgan, “30 Rock”) are part of a massive undead corporation. Led by CEO-like figure Jacob Marley (Patrick Page, “In the Heights”), the crew picks one Scrooge-like figure each year to redeem, compiling dossiers and building extravagant dream sequences to help them realize the error of their ways. After reforming a bratty housewife named Karen in the opening scene, the Ghosts begin scouting their next target: Clint Briggs (Reynolds), a public relations CEO living in New York City who fights dirty, fomenting negativity and tribalism to further his client’s goals. (Local audiences may recognize that the movie’s NYC is actually Boston, where “Spirited” was filmed in 2021.)

Advertisement:

Clint shows off his bonafides at a Christmas Tree Growers convention, singing a hilarious and catchy number about fighting the transition to fake trees by making the ownership of a real tree about preserving tradition and the American way of life. The only problem? Clint has been classified as “unredeemable,” someone who is too evil to be changed by the work of the Christmas spirits. But Ferrell’s ghost is pushy, and the mere threat of breaking into song to make his point convinces Marley that Clint is their guy. (Again, “Spirited” loves to roll its eyes and point out how weird and totally random it is that this is a musical.)

As the haunting of Clint begins, things predictably go awry. Clint is not only unwilling to face his past, but he begins to ask pointed questions of Ferrell’s ghost, wondering why he’s been putting off “retirement” (returning to Earth and living a normal life as a new man) after 200 years in the redemption business. Without revealing too much, this is when the film really gets interesting, as both Clint and Ferrell’s ghost begin facing their own inner demons step by step.

A scene from “Spirited.”

The supporting cast of “Spirited” adds a bit of spice with their limited screentime. As the Ghost of Christmas Past, Mani gets some chuckles as a spirit who is a bit too charmed by Clint’s persuasive nature. We don’t see enough of Octavia Spencer, who plays the Bob Cratchit role as Clint’s right-hand woman. Beyond conveying in song that she’s conflicted about working for this modern-day Scrooge, she’s a bit underutilized.

Advertisement:

This is primarily the Will and Ryan show, and the duo does exactly what is asked of them. Ferrell’s ghost is a bit like a street-wise Buddy from “Elf,” full of holiday cheer but willing to transition into furious Ferrell mode when Clint’s B.S. gets to be too much (Ferrell’s “Get off the shed!” sketch from “Saturday Night Live” comes to mind.) As Clint, Reynolds is perfectly cast, stoking the fires of social media battles and telling his eighth-grade niece with a straight face the only way to win a class president election is to dig up opposition research on her opponent. When Clint finally begins to address his inner turmoil, Reynolds convincingly portrays a man who finally sees himself as the world views him.

From the performances to the genuinely fantastic musical numbers, “Spirited” has a lot going for it. It even manages to find something interesting to say about how contemporary discourse can fuel some Scrooge-ish tendencies. If you can forgive the film for occasionally getting in its own way, it’s worth checking out. But given its 127-minute runtime, “Spirited” could have been even better if director Sean Anders (“Daddy’s Home”) had trimmed some of the self-referential humor and fully embraced the holiday spirit.

Rating: 2 1/2 stars (out of 4)

How to watch: “Spirited” will be released in select theaters Nov. 11, and begins streaming on Apple TV+ on Nov. 18.

Conversation

This discussion has ended. Please join elsewhere on Boston.com