Despite being a staple of the festive season, even the most iconic of Christmas films can’t help but fall into the trap of predictability. It can be what makes them such timeless classics — Buddy the Elf is finally accepted by his new family. The town comes together to give George the money he needs. Renée Zellweger finally snogs Colin Firth while inevitably catching a chill. All predictable, all iconic.
But that’s what sets a film like Sean Anders’s Spirited apart from the crowd. Its characters and premise are as classic as they come, but the plot comes with quirky curveballs and overly elaborate dance sequences which are just as much a treat as they are an assault on the senses.
While not without its fair share of shaky vocals and clunky plotlines, Spirited’s flaws often add to the camp you’d expect — or even hope for — in a festive film (and if you’re in it for a spotless masterpiece, you’re watching the wrong genre of movie). It’s easy to forgive the gaudy dance numbers and goofy punchlines when it all feels so genuinely self aware; a musical-comedy that is all out cheese, and knows it too.
The story follows the premise of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, but from the perspective of the Ghost of Christmas Present, played by Will Ferrell. As it happens, the Scrooge we all know and (eventually) love is not the only person to find themselves haunted by ghosts of past, present and future. The ghosts are instead merely the faces of a vast team that tackles a new grouch each year, including Dolly Parton and a not-so-friendly neighbourhood ‘Karen’.
This year, an immense challenge awaits them when they attempt to redeem the ‘unredeemable’ Clint Briggs (Ryan Reynolds): a media consultant who relishes in causing controversy for a living and is committed to the belief that people will never change.
As the Ghost of Christmas Present desperately battles to prove he is up to the task, Clint attempts to turn the tables by going walkabout in the fake universe that the ghosts have set up to teach him the value of being good (via mockumentary-style flashbacks that show Clint’s memories back to him). The result: an alpha-male boss fight for the spirit of Christmas.
As you might expect, one of the film’s biggest weaknesses is how often it veers towards the convoluted. Anders (famed for his work on titles like Daddy’s Home and Dumb and Dumber To) delivers a plot that is at times rather overstuffed and confusing, but his characters are remarkably easy to root for. And for a story that has been told in every way imaginable, Anders still finds a way to breathe new life into it. I mean, who’d have thought the Ghost of Christmas Present needs set designers and a costume department to bring his moral flashbacks to life?
Ferrell firmly retains his Christmas film icon-status, and his earnest demeanour coupled with Reynold’s dry wit provides a solidly humorous core to a sometimes cluttered story. Though the cast — which also includes the glittering talent that is Octavia Spencer — may struggle with their melodies, their performances still feel like they hit all the right notes.
It might not be a new Elf, but Spirited has its own kind of festive charm. No humbug here.
Spirited is streaming now on AppleTV+