Sure, it’s a bummer to work every Christmas Eve. But when you’re a Dickensonian ghost of Christmas, holiday work is a given.
And it’s not like that’s the only evening they work, either. Getting someone to reform overnight is no easy feat. It takes a whole year of research and preperation, set design and costume construction to get ready for the big event. By the time Christmases Past, Present and Yet-to-Come are ready for action, Christmas Eve can feel a little rote. As the Ghost of Christmas Present says, “You haunt someone. You change them into a better person. And then we sing about it.”
Oh, yes. They sing. They dance. They may celebrate with a bit of Mexican food. And then when the calendar turns to a new year, the team picks a new “perp” and starts prepping for next Christmas Eve.
The Ghost of Christmas Present knows the grind well. And let’s be honest: He enjoys it. Why, he could’ve retired 46 years ago—turned the cornucopia and holly wreath over to a new undead firebrand—but he still likes turning lives around.
But sometimes, Christmas Present wonders if they couldn’t be doing a little more.
Sure, he and his ghostly cohorts can change a single life every Christmas Eve (if all goes well). And certainly, that changed life can ripple out and make life better for those around the perp.
But wouldn’t it be great to change someone who makes bigger ripples?
Christmas Present thinks he’s found just such a lost soul: Clint Briggs, a slimy PR consultant who specializes in take-no-prisoners, let’s-demonize-our-enemies work. “It’s not enough for folks to love you,” he tells a group of Christmas-tree growers. “They gotta hate your rivals more.” Soon, natural-Christmas-tree lovers are pelting their artificial-tree-buying neighbors with something other than Christmas cheer.
“He’s like the perfect combination of Mussolini and Seacrest,” Christmas Present marvels as he watches Clint talk.
Wouldn’t it be great to turn this guy around?
But there’s a catch. According to Clint’s file, the guy has been stamped as “unredeemable.” He’s more than just a first-class jerk. He’s built his career on the assumption that everyone else is kinda jerky, too. They spew insults online. They’ll swindle anyone if given a chance. And people, Clint knows, never, ever change.
Well, Christmas Present hopes to change a few minds about that. And he’ll start with Clint himself—unredeemable or no.
Naturally, Spirited takes us—à la Dickens’ A Christmas Carol—into Christmases of Clint’s past. Raised by a single, distant and often intoxicated mother, we can see the seeds of how he became his cynical self. (It’s a good reminder how we’re shaped by our experiences.)
But we also see some good people in his life, too. His older sister, Carrie, tries to protect Clint when she can. His little brother, Owen, looks up to his big bro; even though Owen’s not particularly responsible, he’s as kindhearted as they come. Clint even had a nice girlfriend named Nora for a time, who did her best to try to change Clint before giving up.
And then there’s Kimberly, Clint’s once-kind, second-in-command whom Clint has molded into a cold-blooded smear artist. Even though she’s wrecked her share of careers and reputations, she just needs a gentle nudge to move in a better direction.
Clint needs more than a nudge, of course. He needs a full-force tackle—one that Christmas Present and the whole Christmas team are ready to give him.
But turns out, Spirited isn’t just about redeeming one more mortal, wayward soul: Christmas Present is in need of some help, too. He truly is a ghost, see: He was once a mortal, just like us. And no matter how hard he works now, he never feels it’s enough to make up for his past misdeeds. Clint proves to be an unlikely catalyst to help Christmas Present move on.
One final note: One of these characters makes a tremendous sacrifice for the other before the end.
Let’s start with the ghosts. We see plenty of ’em. Not just the typical three ghosts from Dickens, but their entire support team (numbering, we’re told, in the hundreds). Good old Jacob Marley sits in the Christmas COO seat—sometimes donning chains and strongboxes to announce the ghosts’ annual visitations. The ghosts can also manipulate space. And the movie tells us—sometimes with surprising poignancy—that death is not the end.
But this is also a Christmas story, and we actually hear far more references to the original, biblical Christmas story than Dickens ever spelled out.
Not that these mentions are particularly reverent.
During a song to the Christmas-tree sellers, Clint tells them that they’re selling old-fashioned tradition: “Give me some peace on earth/A virgin birth/And Grandpa getting sauced!” He’s also all about “Nativities/and Sweet Baby Jeez … Feliz Navidad/And the birth of our God.”
Later, when Clint’s “Christmas Tree War” campaign reaches critical mass, he watches as Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon talks about how if you support artificial trees, “You’re an enemy of Santa Claus, Jesus and Mariah Carey.”
While Spirited does point to Christmas’s Christian cornerstone, a Christmas ghost announces that their efforts will soon be expanding to include, for instance, ghosts of “Ramadan Past and Chanukah to come.”
Ghosts can apparently return to the human world and become mortal again under certain conditions.
The Ghost of Christmas Past is quite attracted to Clint. They flirt during the opening moments of her visitation. The next time we see her, she’s returning early to home base, looking a bit disheveled and muttering about how “one thing led to another.” She convinces Christmas Present to take over her shift, because returning now would just be awkward. (“Your haunt got off to a humpy start,” Present quips to Clint.) Christmas Past drops several other suggestive allusions, too, both before and after this encounter.
Two people smooch and hold hands. Christmas Present considers what it would be like to kiss someone with “one of those newfangled modern mouth kisses.”
Clint makes a joke that appears to reference masturbation and discusses getting a client out of a sexual scandal. A ghost asks if someone clears browser histories once someone dies. During a wedding, we hear that the pastor had an affair with the bride. We see a man in a shower (though nothing critical is shown). Someone says, “You can kiss my Dickens” in a song. A man wears makeup to a Christmas party; two men take a selfie together in a montage of couples.
Marley’s ghost is purposefully a bit terrifying. One character is grabbed by both shoulder and crotch and slammed down. Folks run into poles, fall down stairs and occasionally slap one another. Christmas Yet-to-Come fortells a suicide. Someone gets hit by a bus. A woman dies from cancer. People fall down while skating. Bombs blow up. Walls crash down. People wallop each other in the streets. Someone falls from a hot-air balloon but, improbably, survives.
It would be rare to start this section with what would seem to be an inoffensive greeting. But Christmas Present tells Clint that one such greeting—“Good afternoon”—was considered just about the equivalent of the f-word in his day. That unleashes a very strange musical number where people utter the phrase to each other with obvious hostility, sending the streets of Victorian-era London into utter chaos.
We hear several uses of the s-word (six completed, two abbreviated) and loads of other profanities, too, including “a–,” “b–ch,” “b–tard,” “d–n,” “h—,” “d-ck,” “p-ss,” “crap” and the British vulgarity “bloody.” God’s name is misused nearly 20 times, and Jesus’ name is abused once. We see a few obscene hand gestures.
As mentioned, Clint’s mom is/was a heavy drinker, and we see her in a state of inebriation a couple of times. (In one scene, she’s actively drinking.) We hear a reference to beer.
Did I mention that Clint is a big ol’ jerk? We see just how jerky he can be way too many times to tabulate here. But here’s one prime example.
Clint’s sister died of cancer sometime before the movie begins. Her daughter, Wren, is now running for a spot on the middle-school student council against a boy named Josh—a kind, straight-A student whom everyone, including Wren, likes. Naturally, she asks her high-powered uncle for a little campaign help.
First, he suggests that Wren (also a straight-A student) tank a few classes and “bank a few detentions” so she can position herself as “one of the people,” not some elitist. Then Wren instructs Kimberly to dig up some dirt on Josh (an eighth grader), which she does. Turns out, Josh’s parents run a charity that feeds the homeless every Christmas; two years before, Josh posted a picture on TikTok that suggested spending Christmas Eve with the homeless was “gross.” He took it town within two minutes—but as we all know, the internet can be forever. Clint encourages Wren to repost Josh’s (ill-advised) post to garner votes.
A “perp” is described as a “walking plunger.” A former ghost has an opportunity to take a shower as a mortal—and experience the thrill of indoor plumbing. He announces that he plans to take a shower every month. Clint’s mother tells him, when he’s about 8 years old, that she bought him a dog for Christmas; but Clint left the back door open, and the dog ran away. (Clint says it was the best present he could’ve gotten: “The solid-gold lesson that people will believe anything if they want to believe it. … that lesson made me so rich, I could buy a million puppies.”)
“Want to know what mankind is?” Clint asks his guide, Christmas Present. “Read the comments below.”
Clint knows that in the comments sections of most blogs and social media feeds, people let out their “true” feelings—all their hatred, all their fear, all their apparently boundless vitriol.
Clint tells Christmas Present that people don’t change: They are as sadly predictable as litter, as relentless as entropy. They are lazy. They are desperate to feel good about themselves. And they are motivated more by hate than love.
And we know that, in part, he’s right.
The Bible tells us the same thing, after all: That we are sinful creatures, prone to go our own ways and to do bad things if we feel like we can get away with them.
But the Bible also takes Christmas Present’s side, too. Yes, we are vain and sinful. Yes, we can all be nasty sometimes. But we can change, too. We can foster and grow the good inside us—the good that God put there.
Clint’s file may have been stamped, “Unredeemable.” But Christmas Present believes even someone deemed unredeemable can be redeemed. He can be saved.
On one level, Spirited is just the sort of Christmas movie that would land on Plugged In’s naughty list. It stars two really funny, but often crass actors in Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds. And they both strain to stay true to the film’s PG-13 rating. The movie’s also sprinkled with glancing sexual asides and peppered with foul language. And this “Christmas” story, when it references Jesus’ birth at all, can feel pretty dismissive, if not even a wee bit demeaning.
And yet there’s that core message of change and redemption. And in a way, that’s a central theme of our faith.
“Even if you lost your way, you don’t have to stay a lost cause,” a fun little song in Spirited tells us. We can all choose to be better. That change rarely takes us full circle in a single night, as it does in Dickens’ original Christmas Carol. Be we can still change—deciding to make better decisions every day.
Will Ferrell has already appeared in one seasonal cinematic standard: I’m sure that Elf (which Spirited makes a brief, comical nod to) is on many of your must-watch-in-December lists.
Spirited isn’t as sweet or innocent as Elf. It puts a few lumps of coal into its own figgy pudding. But in a cynical age, Spirited offers some high-minded sincerity. And it reminds us that we are all capable of change, that we can all be redeemed.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.