Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” has been adapted for the screen so many times that each generation naturally has its own touchstone. My personal favorite Scrooge of all time remains Alastair Sim in 1951, followed by the great George C. Scott in 1984, not to mention the animated Scrooge McDuck in 1983 and those lovable Muppets in 1992.
Just when you thought the story couldn’t endure another fresh take, along comes Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds in “Spirited,” now streaming on Apple TV+, focusing not merely on a Scrooge figure but the behind-the-scenes operation of the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, like the North Pole in Tim Allen’s “The Santa Clause” (1994).
Set in a festive afterlife, the Ghost of Christmas Present (Will Ferrell) approaches his longtime colleague Jacob Marley (Patrick Page) about potential retirement after saving souls on Christmas Eve. Marley begs him to do one last job: Attempting to convert an “unredeemable” in the cocky social-media tycoon Clint Briggs (Ryan Reynolds).
Nearly 20 years after his “fish out of water” classic “Elf” (2003), Will Ferrell returns to the holiday genre as a “fish tired of being in the water.” He wants to leave the supernatural realm and settle down for a normal life, like the angel in Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire” (1987). Ferrell’s endearing charm reminds us that smiling is indeed our favorite.
His dance partner kicks ass. If you liked Bill Murray in Richard Donner’s “Scrooged” (1988), you’ll love Ryan Reynolds in “Spirited.” His brand of lovable snark made Marvel’s “Deadpool” (2012) a smash. This time, he’s perfectly cast as the cocky tech tycoon — think a handsome version of Elon Musk. Who doesn’t root for Christmas taming a bad boy?
They’re surrounded by Octavia Spencer (“The Help”) as Clint’s assistant Kimberly, who joined him when he stormed out like “Jerry Maguire;” Sunita Mani (“Save Yourselves”), who shines as a fawning Christmas Past; Tracy Morgan (“SNL”), who spits zingers as Christmas Future; and Patrick Page (“The Gilded Age”), who is a strong Jacob Marley.
(Random local trivia: Page recently played The Bard’s best baddies in the one-man-show “All the Devils Are Here: How Shakespeare Invented the Villain” at Shakespeare Theatre Company in D.C., after Playbill lovingly named him “The Villain of Broadway.”)
Speaking of Broadway, “Spirited” boasts a deceptively deep musical songbook, written by the dynamic duo of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who wrote “Waving Through a Window” for Broadway’s “Dear Evan Hansen” (2016) before going into movie musicals with “City of Stars” in “La La Land” (2016) and “Never Enough” in “The Greatest Showman” (2017).
In “Spirited,” they kick off the fun with the razzle dazzle of “That Christmas Morning Feelin’,” capturing the hope and cheer of the holiday season while introducing the behind-the-scenes operation of the ghosts. This is followed by “Present’s Lament,” as Ferrell reveals a bittersweet side to the holiday rush of constantly giving one’s self to others.
The real showstopper is Ryan Reynolds’ introductory number “Bringin’ Back Christmas,” performed as a TED Talk at a corporate banquet. If you listen closely to the rapid-fire lyrics, it’s a witty satire of cable news fear-mongering about a “War on Christmas” that divides the American people while lining the pockets of corporate media moguls.
“The View From Here” is Octavia Spencer realizing that climbing the corporate ladder for a skyscraper view of the Manhattan skyline isn’t as fulfilling as she hoped it would be. We then get two version of “The Story of Your Life,” first subtitled “Marley’s Haunt” and later “Clint’s Pitch,” as Clint resists the ghosts’ attempts to make him relive past memories.
The most memorable number is “Good Afternoon,” directed by Sean Anders as an old-school number in the snowy streets of London, in the style of “Consider Yourself” in Carol Reed’s Best Picture “Oliver!” (1968). The song hilariously treats the common greeting “Good Afternoon” as an offensive expletive like telling someone to “eff off.” It’s a hoot.
After a nifty twist, Ferrell sings “Unredeemable” to confront his own fears as to whether he was truly redeemed in his past mortal life, considering he died three weeks after his own Christmas Eve saving. All this time, he has argued with his supernatural colleagues to not label Clint as “unredeemable,” but this is the moment that he turns the lens on himself.
The climatic number “Do A Little Good” cleverly freezes time as the supernatural spirits congratulate Clint for finally seeing the light. There’s even a fun surprise as time resumes, sending us into a reprise of “That Christmas Morning Feelin'” as a final curtain call.
When the credits roll, you’ll smile and say, “I didn’t know I’d enjoy that so much.” It’s a tad long for a musical comedy, but it may inspire you to improve yourself this holiday season. Just as Tiny Tim said, “God bless us, everyone,” Ferrell’s “Spirited” insists that no one is “unredeemable.” From now on when we rank Scrooge adaptions, this one makes the cut.