The most important thing to note: “Spirited” is a full-on musical.
This “A Christmas Carol” retelling features brilliant lines like “I’m Brad Pitt. Just kidding.” and a non-captioned line that is supposedly Japanese. After five minutes of positioning ordinary ghosts as elf-adjacent helpers to the four ghosts of Christmas, the Ghost of Christmas Present (Will Ferrell, “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga”) breaks out in song.
The film tries to be winking about its unexpected musical outburst, but it comes off as awkward and the joke falls flat. “This is a musical,” says an elf-like ghost recruiter (Lily Sullivan, “Killing It”). “All of this. The afterlife.”
Thus begins the two-hour disasterpiece from co-writer-director-producer Sean Anders (“Instant Family”). Despite never having seen his other works, I confidently call “Spirited” his magnum opus. Master gaslighter and media consultant Clint Briggs (Ryan Reynolds, “Red Notice”) — a human character who was clearly written à la Ferris Bueller — is the perfect protagonist to round out this flawless film, which is part social commentary, part unintentional satire of movie musicals and dramas.
John Fassold, my favorite YouTuber of 2017, once made a video titled “How EVERY The Chainsmokers song is written.” This video was part of a series covering the music of many pop artists to show how repetitive pop choruses can be. Every musical number in “Spirited” could be compiled into a Fassold-style video titled “How EVERY Broadway-slash-movie-musical song is written.” The Ghost of Christmas Present begins the first musical number about Christmas before he is joined by his friend Marley (Patrick Page, “Hadestown”), and in classic movie musical fashion, the other ghosts break out into choreographed dance. The dance number is interspersed with passing quips from the other characters, including ghost recruits who watch the whole spectacle. With each interruption, the music intensifies.
Anders manages to capture the essence of movie musicals in a way that at first feels unbearably cringeworthy. But if we consider his formulaic design as intentional, it reveals itself as a stroke of genius. Musical numbers are often predictable and lack substance, so by making them as predictable and as infuriating as possible, he unintentionally critiques the genre due to an almost intentional lack of creativity.
Another quality of triumphant musicals: Everyone gets redemption. Our main character Clint is at first characterized as irredeemable, having gone as far as fabricating a career-ending scandal to help his client gain an advantage over their opponent. Nevertheless, the ghosts set out to redeem him. His assistant Kimberly (Octavia Spencer, “Encounter”), who has a guilty conscience from her often unethical work for Clint, also redeems herself by the end. The Ghost of Christmas Present himself is revealed to be Scrooge (who could have guessed, with a ghost friend named Marley?), and in having him be redeemed, Anders sticks up for our most vulnerable population here — boomers guilty about their past wrongdoings. By acting like a pseudo–Ghost of Christmas who redeems his seemingly irredeemable characters, Anders unintentionally satirizes dramas that attempt to rationalize their morally complex and questionable characters in often oversimplified takes on the situation.
The best part of this already beautiful film is the disconnect between the portrayal of Clint and the way the other ghosts respond to him. From the start, Clint manipulates others. The other ghosts are aware, but they begin to justify his behavior as the movie progresses and conclude that he really did change, even though he merely manipulated them into thinking he changed. Clint and the other characters are perfect examples of toxic people and their friends who excuse their behavior. Beyond unintentionally satirizing musicals and dramas that have too many overused tropes, Anders uses this film to unwittingly comment on how society lets the worst people get away with anything if they’re charismatic.
This movie sets its ambitions high and does not disappoint. While marketed as a comedy, Anders takes the bold creative decision to make all of the jokes unfunny. In doing so, he allows the film to transcend beyond a simple comedy fit for mortals and become a satirical oeuvre dedicated to pointing out the bad in regular comedies, much like the ghosts are dedicated to pointing out the bad in the human world.
To the companies that funded this movie, from whom I will never get back these two hours of my life, I say: “Good afternoon.”
Also, Jimmy Fallon cameos as himself.
Daily Arts Writer Kristen Su can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.