Sean Anders (“Daddy’s Home”) co-wrote and directed this admittedly clever variation on a tale that’s been told by everyone from the Muppets to Bill Murray, but this is a different kind of Scrooge tale. What if the ghosts that haunted Ebenezer Scrooge on that fateful night did the same thing every year to a different troubled soul? “Spirited” imagines an entire spiritual industry built around redeeming one relentless jerk—and, yes, it does get into the idea that so much energy expended on one person in an era of social media hit jobs that manipulate thousands is like a drop in a bucket. Still, facilitator Jacob Marley (Patrick Page) believes there’s value in their process, and he leads a massive team that researches each year’s chosen miser.
The team thinks they have a perfect choice in a Vancouver hotel manager who yells at janitors, but the Ghost of Christmas Present (Will Ferrell) runs into a speaker at the hotel named Clint Briggs (Ryan Reynolds), realizing he is the white whale. Briggs is a social media manipulator, introduced singing a song—oh yeah, this is a full-throated musical—about weaponizing the war on Christmas for profit. He is the kind of businessman who doesn’t see moral lines as long as his client wins, even if his client is his niece Wren (Marlow Barkley), who he convinces to do opposition research and social media shaming on her rival for a position at school. Clint’s assistant Kimberly (Octavia Spencer) looks like she has been worn down by the moral failures of her boss, but Clint doesn’t see himself as a force for bad. He’s just one of those guys who believes that hitting first is the best strategy. (And it’s a minor flaw of the film that the writers seem unwilling to make Clint too “unredeemable” and risk alienating viewers against one of their lovable leads.)
Ferrell’s ghost becomes obsessed with redeeming Clint, even as the other spirits (Sunita Mani plays Past and Tracy Morgan voices Yet to Come) basically get sidelined. Surprisingly, “Spirited” becomes as much The Ghost of Christmas Present’s tale as it is Clint’s as Ferrell’s character wants to leave it all behind and become human again, especially after finding an unexpected reason to rejoin the mortal coil.
All of this is told through the hyperactive energy of what feels at times like a draft for a stage musical both in function and form. Musical numbers explode with choruses of backup singer/dancers playing to one side of a set as if they’re on a stage. The sense that you’re watching a filmed stage musical extends to the production design, which often looks like cheap sets or green screen backgrounds instead of actual physical spaces. And the writing has that Broadway tendency to hit a few of the same beats over and over again, especially in the final acts of the film, which push this overlong musical to over two hours.