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‘Spirited’ Can’t Escape ‘Elf’s’ Shadow

‘Spirited’ Can’t Escape ‘Elf’s’ Shadow
‘Spirited’ Can’t Escape ‘Elf’s’ Shadow

Will Ferrell deserves our eternal thanks for refusing to make an “Elf” sequel.

The “Saturday Night Live” alum squanders some of that goodwill with “Spirited,” a Christmas musical pining to be the next yuletide staple.

Nothing doing.

While “Elf” embraced timeless trappings, “Spirited” goes for today’s pop culture jugular. Give it a few years, and many references will be dated, or worse.

The best Christmas movies are light on their feet and share essential truths. “Spirited” is so busy, so frantic to be all things to all viewers that it ends up leaving everyone behind.

Ferrell stars as Present, as in the Ghost of Christmas Present. Yes, “Spirited” is another spin on “A Christmas Carol,” but it uses that template as the starting point for a soul reclamation project.

Present and his army of ghosts pick people who need to be “redeemed,” and then scare them straight. They’re aided by a boney-fingered Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come (Tracy Morgan, in a rare, laugh-free role for the comic veteran).

Present is mulling retirement as the story opens, but he lucks upon a soul who truly, deeply needs redemption. Ryan Reynolds plays Clint, a consultant with charisma to burn but few morals to keep his talents in check.

He’ll do whatever it takes to get ahead in business. Kind of like Hollywood behind the scenes!

Most Christmas movies are appropriate for all ages, with a few leaning hard into their R-rated glee (“Bad Santa,” “Fatman,” the upcoming “Violent Night”). “Spirited” mostly falls in the former camp … except when it doesn’t.

A few curse words could easily to snipped without losing anything, and co-star Sunita Mani as the Ghost of Christmas Past is, well, perpetually horny.

“Spirited” is desperate for laugh lines, and it’ll take ’em wherever it can.

The film’s musical numbers are plentiful, and most are good enough to keep our interest courtesy of the team behind “The Greatest Showman” – Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Who knew Reynolds could sing and dance? Ferrell isn’t as nimble and his voice a bit thin for this affair, but neither is a stumbling block given his comic chops.

Ferrell remains an underrated talent despite his A-list brand.

Possibly the biggest surprise with “Spirited?” It looks cheap, from the bargain-bin CGI to lighting that gives off a live TV feel where corners must be understandably cut.

Another burden?

Ferrell and Reynolds bring different comic styles to the project. Ferrell is the man-child, the clownish figure with a deep reservoir of innocence to power the comedy.

Reynolds is all curdled cynicism, a snarky fellow always ready with a quip.

Both modes work wonderfully with their solo projects. Here? They contribute to the film’s meandering tone. It’s romantic at times, soulful for stretches, then brimming with meta gags.

The film’s two-hour running time allows for plenty of subplots and characters, but there’s rarely room for “Spirited” to breathe. Present’s shy romance with Octavia Spencer offers just such a respite, but it’s not fleshed out enough to matter.

Both stars deserve better.

One sequence gives Ferrell a fish-out-of-water experience, and darned if “Spirited” isn’t trying to ape Buddy’s New York City sequences in “Elf.” The moment caps with an Easter egg visual tied to the 2002 classic.

The less “Spirited” viewers are reminded of that beloved film, the better.

HiT or Miss: “Spirited” offers sporadic laughs, some game musical numbers and the sense that creating a seasonal classic is much harder than it looks.

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