It’s been almost 20 years since Will Ferrell and Jon Favreau gifted us the unlikely yet enduring Christmas winner Elf, the rare four-quadrant success story that neatly balanced the sweet with the salty. It’s a tricky tightrope that Ferrell’s new festive comedy Spirited precariously wobbles along before almost immediately falling off, a desperate and crudely assembled attempt to recapture that very difficult to capture magic.
It comes from Apple, as one of the tech behemoth’s biggest bets to date (at least $75m was spent just on talent), and suitably has the feeling of something created less by real human people and more calculated by artificial intelligence, heavy emphasis on artificial. It’s a plasticky piece of product with the puppyish insistence that it has the power to please us all, frantically trying to tick every box but failing to hit just one. A meta spin on A Christmas Carol that’s also a bromance comedy but mostly an earnest, full-throated musical was never going to be an easy elevator pitch to untangle but it was enough to spark a bidding war with Apple beating out Netflix, Paramount and Warner Bros.
In the annual flurry of cheaply stuffed Christmas streaming movies, there is a thrill to watching one that wouldn’t pixelate if transferred to a bigger screen and Spirited easily and expensively earns its one-week theatrical release before it heads to your smartphone. It’s all very slickly packaged, even if at points such slickness becomes a little too synthetic, and will probably find a record audience for Apple, a company that’s struggled to find a homegrown blockbuster movie. But while it might be a hit this season, I doubt for many it will have that annual rewatchability factor, a film not for life but just this one Christmas.
In the high-concept world of Spirited, haunting is a business. Every year when Christmas approaches, three ghosts descend upon a figure in need of de-Scrooging, redemption being the ultimate goal. The Ghost of Christmas Present (Ferrell) is edging toward retirement but eager to make an impact before that day comes and so picks Clint Briggs (Ryan Reynolds), a heartless media consultant who spends his life causing conflict for a living. He’s what’s known as an “unredeemable”, someone incapable of real change, but along with Past (Glow’s Sunita Mani) and Future (the voice of Tracy Morgan), he’s determined to finish the job.
New adaptations of the Dickens morality tale are a seasonal staple (this year also sees a Netflix animation with the voices of Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley, the return of Jefferson Mays’ one-man Broadway show and an Adrian Edmondson-led version at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon) and so there is at least some initial inventiveness to be praised in the Daddy’s Home co-writers Sean Anders and John Morris’s distinctive revision. There’s some intricate world-building and the odd deft idea but some less developed joke-writing, a string of misses crashing from the very first scene. While Elf managed to be genuinely funny while also being genuinely sweet, the tone here is far less even. The wink, wink jokes for the adults reek of eye-rolling smugness (it’s the kind of film where a character watches a song-and-dance number and asks “Why are they singing?” to the answer of “Because they’re in a musical”) and this clashes with the film’s often embarrassingly straight-faced earnestness, most visible in the film’s many, many, many musical set pieces.
The decision to make the film a musical is a genuine head-scratcher, one that’s never justified or even mildly explained given that the two leads are not natural singers and so throughout the lunges into song feel awkward at best. With music from the La La Land and The Greatest Showman duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, it’s certainly committed to the genre but extravagant staging and enthused backing dancers can’t disguise forgettable, cloying songs and lacklustre singing. It’s closer to watching high-budget karaoke at an office Christmas party. Even when they’re not bursting into song, the two can’t really conjure the necessary star powered chemistry to glide us through. Reynolds’s regurgitated quippy shtick is growing more exhausted by the movie (his character name-checking Scrooged only serves to remind us just how much more well-suited Bill Murray was to the role of grinch) while an unsure Ferrell struggles to flip between serious and silly leaving it up to an underused Octavia Spencer, as assistant-cum-love interest, to walk away with the film, an admittedly easy task given the leaden leads.
Anders, also serving as director, never seems confident enough in what his film should be and so we’re never confident enough in what we’re actually watching, an atonal grab bag of inharmonious notes (an uneasy third act suicide proves to be the flattest). When stretched to a two-hour-plus runtime (with more musical bits during the credits), we leave feeling bloated, a 10-course Christmas meal we wish we’d never started.
Spirited is out in cinemas on 11 November and on Apple TV+ on 18 November