It’s quite odd how we continuously repurpose and recycle holiday stories year after year. In many ways, I suppose we do that in our culture anyways seeing as we’ve had centuries of storytelling at this point and there’s only a handful of new ones to tell that don’t borrow significant aspects from its own inspirations, but this notion seems particularly poignant around the holiday season.
This may be because the old ones truly are the great ones (something I frantically try to negate in hopes that new storytelling continues to push the boundary and toe the cutting edge), or maybe it’s because we like to associate ourselves with nostalgia and our comfort watches during a time meant for reflection on the previous year and on ourselves. It’s tradition, as they say, and tradition means surrounding yourself with your favorites – even if they are highly-conglomerated, soul-sucking versions of the stories you are familiar with. Or as Apple TV+ likes to say, “Spirited.”
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Not only does this not-so-fresh take on the Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” story lack originality to the point of being so comically unfunny, but it’s spearheaded by two stars so eagerly excited to outshine the other that both come off underbaked and completely over-wrought. In most years, starring in “The Adam Project” would certainly be the lowest point for a leading actor, but the man himself, Ryan Reynolds, continues to surprise audiences and critics alike with how many times he can recharacterize the winking, egotistical Deadpool persona he donned less than a decade ago.
And Will Ferrell, I’m not even sure. The musical aspect of “Spirited” must’ve intrigued him enough to take this obvious paycheck job, but for a guy who’s been so adamant on displaying is own vocal chops for the better part of his career, even that piece of this film feels forced and inauthentic. How ironic that a feel titled “Spirited” has the least amount of quote-unquote spirit in a film this year, and in a holiday film that I’ve seen in quite some time.
This film also has, because I know you’re asking, a cancel culture subplot resulting in a child committing suicide, Tracy Morgan playing the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come (which, admittedly, I did chuckle at first not knowing he was slated to be in the film. The charm wears off quickly), a cheeky and shockingly dull plot twist that does not do the O.G. Ebenezer Scrooge any favors, and so many forgettable songs that I can’t name the title of without going to the Wikipedia page.
The lone bright spot in this two-hour nightmare that manages to feel twice that in length is the always joyful Octavia Spencer, who manages to make some positive choices out of a character pushed to the background and who certainly does not pass the Bechdel test.
There are few times during the year where content gets abruptly dumped onto various streaming services in higher quantities with hopes to artificially boost that platform’s numbers, but the holiday season is definitely one of those times. HBO Max and Netflix are doing universally the same thing that Apple TV is doing with “Spirited,” only those platforms haven’t plastered advertisements on every social media page and ad break within video content, and they haven’t pumped millions of dollars into the leading roles and horrendously rendered CGI background images.
Because not only does this film center on two movie stars pouring as little heart into a messy script as possible, it also doesn’t look authentic. The soundstage movie studio has gotten worse and worse by the year, but this may take the cake. The depth of field is nearly absent, and the post-production is squeaky clean, offering no texture whatsoever.
Holiday films don’t have the reputation for being critical darlings, but generally there are a few that stand out. Many of the lacking ones are either too cliché or too emotional wrung out. In the case of “Spirited,” it isn’t either of those – it’s worse. This overly-indulgent holiday mess sets the bar extremely low for the seasonal slate coming up.