Here’s the thing that really surprised me about “Spirited,” the new musical comedy with Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds.
It’s actually a good musical.
I expected the movie would be a feel-good comedy with a few “Aw, they’re really trying!" numbers thrown in here and there. But with songs by Benj Patel and Justin Paul (“Dear Evan Hansen,” “La La Land”) and big, bold dance numbers choreographed by Chloe Arnold, “Spirited” is legit.
Director and co-writer Sean Anders, a DeForest native, shoots the movie like an old-school Hollywood musical sparkling with Technicolor dazzle, with dozens of dancers and singers filling the screen. And while sometimes nonmusical stars in musicals can hide their shortcomings through closeups, body doubles and quick editing, the wide panoramic shots give no place for Ferrell and Reynolds to hide. They acquit themselves nicely, whether belting out a showstopper or doing a little softshoe.
And, yes, “Spirited” is also very funny and sweet, a spiritual successor to Bill Murray’s “Scrooged.” “Spirited” is now playing in Madison theaters at Marcus Point, Marcus Palace and Flix Brewhouse Madison, and is also streaming on Apple TV+.
Ferrell plays the Ghost of Christmas Present, the middleman between the Ghost of Christmas Past (Sunita Mani) and the fearsome Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come (Tracy Morgan), who steer modern-day Scrooges toward the light. Present (I don’t know what else to call him) loves his job, even though he’s past retirement age and could be sent back to Earth to live life as a mortal, a dream he covets and fears.
To put off that decision, Present pushes his boss, Jacob Marley (Patrick Park) to let him try and convert a soul from the “Unredeemable” file, a smooth-talking PR guy named Clint (Reynolds). Described as a cross between “Mussolini and Seacrest,” Clint excels at whipping up Twitter beefs online for the sake of his clients, which already seemed like a dated plot point before recent events.
As Present shows Clint the unsavory details of his life, including his betrayal of a beloved older sister (Andrea Anders of “Ted Lasso,” Sean Anders’ real-life sister), the two become sort of buddies. But Clint starts pushing back, questioning why Present is so reluctant to become human, especially when he falls for Clint’s assistant (a winning Octavia Spencer). There’s a pretty clever twist about halfway through the movie that sheds some light.
The screenplay by Anders and his longtime writing partner John Morris ("Daddy's Home," "Instant Family") is full of rapid-fire jokes that both send up and celebrate musicals, with the actors often pausing mid-song to comment on the silliness of it all. (“Tap is new to me,” Clint says, after doing a credible dance. “It’s a very expressive medium!”) But the asides don’t take the air out of those songs, including a daffy “Oliver”-like Cockney number called “Good Afternoon,” or a plaintive “Who am I?” ballad from Present called “Unredeemable.”
Reynolds and Ferrell have an affable comic chemistry, with Ferrell conveying some of the sweetness of Buddy the Elf, especially when Present becomes human and marvels at earthly delights like taking a shower or getting slapped in the face (“It’s actually kind of thrilling!”). Both actors throw themselves whole hog into the song-and-dance numbers in a sincere and appealing way.
Every fall we get a deluge of holiday movies that are often forgotten by the following Thanksgiving. I’m not prepared to say it’s an “Elf”-level classic, but “Spirited” is a fun crowd-pleaser that could have toes tapping for years to come.