Ryan Reynolds has found himself in an interesting time in his career. He has, essentially, been playing versions of himself — or maybe versions of his Deadpool persona — since the first Merc with a Mouth film hit theaters. While he’s excelled in projects that have required him to utilize his leading man good looks for more sinister roles such as The Voices, or ones that allowed his sly veneer to be strictly that, a facade, in supporting roles like Mississippi Grind, or stripped it all away such as in the claustrophobic Buried, he has, in recent years, stuck to a very specific, brand-approved approach to acting. Which is, to say, very little acting at all. It’s mostly quick wit and silly names and dry humor that attempts to steal away any necessary sincerity.
Similarly, Will Ferrell has built a career on the doofus, the oversized man-child. He too has detoured, Stranger Than Fiction being a near-perfect example of how to show off a star’s versatility without going full “serious actor” method. A consummate performer with a wide range of talents (singing in particular), the actor has too often been readily available to play the softer, less stereotypically “masculine” performer to whatever Mark Wahlberg vacuum suck needs a performative ego boost.
And there are traces of this in Spirited, a riff of A Christmas Carol starring Ferell as one of the cogs in the machine that works on reforming one person a year. Reynolds plays Clint, the “unredeemable” who Ferrell’s Ghost of Christmas Present is determined to change. Produced by Reynolds’ production company Maximum Effort, there are moments that all but drag your eyes to the back of your head as characters comment on how charming and attractive Reynolds’s character is.
That said, there is more charm at hand here than might be expected, and it’s as close to a sincere performance as we’ve gotten from Reynolds in ages. It’s reminiscent, in a way, of Ferrell’s other musical project of late, Netflix’s Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. The stark difference though is that the Netflix film had an abundance of clear, unmistakable heart to complement its aloof silliness.
There is an attempt at heart in Spirited, but it’s the aspect most lacking in what otherwise is a solid modern musical. There has to be a way to move past the weird pre-requisite smarm that reads as a smug wink and nudge type of humor that has infiltrated every major Ryan Reynolds role, because we already know he’s a stronger performer than these limitations allow.
As a whole, the film lands somewhere in the “just fine” zone. Sequences set in the past take on a sickly blue tint that renders the world colorless, even as it involves one of the zippier song and dance sequences, “Good Afternoon.” Reynolds, Ferrell, and Octavia Spencer all make for engaging performers, Reynolds making up for any lacking grace in dance with gusto, and Spencer delivering a showstopper of a number early on. Directed by Sean Anders, there are some odd technical choices, such as the fourth wall breaking during the song numbers that don’t add to the theatricality but rather further accentuate the artifice of it all.
“People don’t change.”
Anders does, however, joyfully capture the acrobatics of the choreography, which is a sheer spectacle in the way musicals should be. There’s no need to scrub the fantasy element away and somehow make moments where characters break into song fade into realism. While there are far too many moments of other characters acknowledging that a song is about to start, the numbers themselves are engaging and energetic, utilizing modern dance with tap and feats of exhaustive physicality.
The backup dancers don’t so much steal focus as Anders prioritizes them, and rightfully so, with plenty of shots dedicated to their immeasurable work in both supporting the leading cast and putting on a full-fledged production. It can’t be overstated just how crucial the work by Chloe Arnold is as choreographer. Similarly, the film is given a leg up with original music from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who have worked together on music for films such as La La Land and The Greatest Showman.
Spirited may not be destined to become a new holiday classic, it’s too calculating and shallow in its ultimately thin messaging. It’s fun enough, well-shot enough, and has two stars at the forefront who, even when they can’t find scripts that want to show it off, do possess a certain magnetism to their performances. They gel well here, but how much of that is due to preconceived caricatures they’ve both built elsewhere? An early swing to the holiday season, Spirited is better than it has any right to be, even if the script does need a tad more fine-tuning.
Spirited is now playing in limited release before hitting Apple TV+ on November 18. Watch the trailer here.
Featured Image Courtesy of Apple TV+
SPIRITED - 6/10