Lighting. It’s an oft-overlooked element of film unless you find yourself at the mercy of a dying projector (which is the fault of the multiplex and not the moviemaker). But it’s front and center in Spirited, a holiday comedy-musical now playing in limited theatrical release and landing Friday on Apple TV+.
Honestly, the lighting should share billing on the poster alongside its comedic co-stars Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds, teaming up for the first time in lead roles. Ferrell. Reynolds. Lighting. The movie ostensibly shakes up Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, imagining the purposeful yuletide haunting of horrible people to help them see the error of their ways as an analog to Santa’s Christmas Eve ride — an industry for which the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come prepare year-round before the big show.
But really, it’s about lighting. More specifically, stage lighting. There is no scene in Spirited that someone thought could not be improved by an intrusive, ostentatious set of hot, beaming purple-green-gold stage lights. That’s because the people behind Spirited would seem to rather skip the onscreen stuff altogether and go straight to the stage. (The entire visual conceit of the film, written and directed by the minds behind the Daddy’s Home franchise, is as if everyone is on a stage while also in the middle of the movie.) Ah, but adaptations are an easier sell. So while you can watch all 127 overlit minutes of Spirited from the comfort of your home this season, don’t be surprised when a 187-minute version makes its way to stages in several years.
In that incarnation, there will undoubtedly be even more songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul — the Tony- Oscar- and Grammy-winning team behind Dear Evan Hansen and the songs of The Greatest Showman and La La Land. (Yes, they are one shy of an EGOT. If they can figure out a way to contort Spirited‘s streaming availability into a TV competition, they’ll probably try it.) Without composer Justin Hurwitz to counter them (as he seemed to on their comparatively muted, and best, work in La La Land), Pasek and Paul’s watches are perpetually wound for the 11 o’clock number. What they write aren’t songs so much as tuneful punches to the face. “That Christmas Mornin’ Feeling” conjures crazed ripping of wrapping paper more than community and togetherness. Performed for beleaguered natural Christmas tree salesmen, “Bringin’ Back Christmas” finds Reynolds — who plays the latest human-stain mark for Ferrell’s Ghost of Christmas Present and company to fix — sounding like Professor Hill if he were hawking Auto-Tune rather than brass bands. Nice or nothing at all: At least “Good Afternoon,” which finds Reynolds and Ferrell in raucous spirit circa the 19th century, is fun and fresh, and has what would be the laugh-aloud streaming-movie cameo of the year if Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery weren’t around the corner.
It’s a pity because the moments where they shelve the songs — and, for the love of holy, let all of those lights cool down — can be pretty fun. Spirited is entirely too long and episodic for everything to come together, but its inversion of the Scrooge story is a fun one and Ferrell & Reynolds make good foils for one another. The moments where Ferrell seems to express the immense irritation some people feel about Reynolds’ persona in general are quite funny. Still, no one will be regularly swapping either of the two stars’ previous superior holiday films for this one any time soon. And despite what all that godforsaken lighting might say, I don’t think they’ll be flocking to any Broadway adaptation down the road, either.