When Steven Spielberg finally made a movie musical last year, it qualified as a major event (at least for movie geeks). When Hugh Jackman translated his Broadway song-and-dance skills to the big screen, first for an adaptation of Les Misérables and then for the original musical The Greatest Showman, audiences happily queued up. Part of the excitement over these splashy entrances into the genre was that it fulfilled not just audience desire, but palpable filmmaker excitement: For much of their careers, Spielberg and Jackman seemed to be calling out to make movie musicals, and then finally made good. Yet, far less anticipation has greeted Will Ferrell’s leading role in Spirited, a musical Christmas Carol adaptation debuting on Apple TV+ following a brief, little-noticed theatrical run.
Both of these things, admittedly, sound like jokes: That someone has made another big-budget Christmas Carol musical, this time with Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds, and that anyone would get excited about Ferrell turning into a song-and-dance man. But one of the best things about Spirited is the way it provides an outlet for an aspect of Ferrell’s career that’s been staring us in the face for decades, even though he’s not particularly associated with it. From musical sojourns in his best movies (Step Brothers) and some of his worst (Holmes & Watson), to his supporting part in the ill-fated 2005 version of the Producers musical, this is clearly a man with a song in his heart.
Ferrell has been dancing and, especially, singing since his Saturday Night Live days, and from today’s vantage that doesn’t seem all that unusual; most recent seasons of SNL have at least a dozen music video parodies (Ferrell did one; a couple years ago, though he doesn’t sing in it), and John Mulaney has made musical-theater spoofs a signature recurring bit for his hosting gigs. But that theater-kid energy has not always been an SNL mainstay; originally, the show was a bit more rock-and-roll, befitting its countercultural roots. Even a figure as musty as a lounge singer would become a vessel for a sort of ironic cool in the hands of Bill Murray—and when Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi did the Blues Brothers, it was played pretty straight. Similarly, Adam Sandler’s guitar ditties (and especially the live crowd’s reception of them) stayed in the rock idiom. Ferrell’s musicality owes more to characters like the Sweeney Sisters, the Jan Hooks/Nora Dunn duo who establish a clear lineage from Murray’s Nick the Lounge Singer to Ferrell’s Marty Culp—part of a husband-and-wife duo, with Ana Gasteyer’s Bobbi Mohan-Culp. Their straight-faced approach to pop-song parodies would take on an operatic intensity, contrasting with their milquetoast, middle-school-music-teacher mildness.
That, of course, is the Ferrell sketch-comedy persona in a nutshell: The suburban dork who might fly off his hinges if certain social constructions are threatened. For characters like Craig the Spartan Cheerleader or his glorious caricatures of Neil Diamond and Robert Goulet, the mania of performing is also what seems to just barely keep them together. That even sort of holds true for Ferrell’s first big foray into cinematic musical performance: His supporting role as the Hitler-loving playwright whose work is targeted as a surefire flop in The Producers. The Broadway adaptation occasionally springs to life when Ferrell’s mania attempts to capture a cruel and senseless idolization of the Nazi regime, performing power fantasies through passionate mincing.
Ferrell would move on to another form of masculinity performed as spectacle: Professional sports. Talladega Nights, Blades of Glory and Semi-Pro don’t include any traditional musical numbers, but they’re full of showboating, and Ferrell obviously loves the idea of insecure men puffing themselves up over what amounts to an elaborate stage show—perfect for self-mockery of his dual background in performing and, in high school, being a multi-sport jock. Maybe his own early capacity for success at both sports and performing arts lent him this understanding of the squishy sensitivity lurking beneath the bravado of so many athletes; regardless, there’s something in Ferrell’s physicality—tall and strapping, but with little cartoonish accents like squinty eyes and unruly hair—that lends him a kind of parodic gracefulness. He’s great at playing athletes who don’t realize that they’re actually dancers.
That quality also lends itself well to parodying other forms of masculinity, increasingly expressed through song. It’s there in Ferrell and Adam McKay’s Anchorman, where the news team breaks into a chorus of “Afternoon Delight.”
It’s even more pronounced in Step Brothers, McKay and Ferrell’s arrested-development comedy to arrest all other development comedies, where Ferrell’s Brennan is said to have a beautiful voice (“like a combination of Fergie and Jesus,” per his step-bro Dale, played by Ferrell’s frequent partner John C. Reilly). He deploys it only shyly and haltingly—until the film’s operatic finale, wherein he performs the Andrea Bocelli song “Por Ti Volaré” (accompanied by Dale on the drums, naturally), blowing up both his hard-won working-man maturity and the Apatow-style comedy’s notions of what constitutes character growth.
Ferrell and McKay came closest to making a full-blown musical with their Anchorman sequel, which during production was said to include multiple production numbers, possibly a remnant of its conception as a stage show. The only one that made it into the theatrical cut is Ferrell’s paean to Doby, the shark he nurses back to health with his family, but in a deleted sequence restored for the alternate-jokes version, the news team speculates about what it might be like to gay through song. In both instances, long-repressed sensitivity and empathy is released through comically overblown musicality.
This use of musical catharsis fits Ferrell’s comedy so well that there’s almost a visceral sting when it flops, which is the case for so much of Holmes & Watson, his most recent (and Adam McKay-less) reteaming with John C. Reilly, including its musical number. A climactic love song for the duo was written by no less than Disney veterans Alan Menken and Glenn Slater, and because the movie has no particular satirical point of view or even much of a concept beyond “Ferrell and Reilly are Holmes and Watson, but silly,” the singing and dancing doesn’t make a splash: It just sits there, as sweaty as anything else in this lavishly pointless production. It crosses the line into simply regarding musical performance as kind of ridiculous and inherently funny.
Spirited seems like it should land on the Holmes side of that divide. There’s no particular reason for this latest Christmas Carol adaptation to be a musical; it adds a confusing layer of reality onto a fantastical comedy, pads the running time, and offers an excuse for the Disney-level smarm of characters snarking on other characters for singing and dancing. And maybe that would have been where it ended for a Ryan Reynolds musical (though it must be said that Reynolds acquits himself well with an early number vaguely aping The Music Man’s “Ya Got Trouble”). But while Spirited has no lofty satirical aims, it is Ferrell who really sells the musical angle. As the Ghost of Christmas Present trying his best to convert various Scrooge figures into self-improvement, he’s not grappling with the fragile state of traditional machismo, but his singing and dancing have a similar manic desperation—converting theater-kid insistence into its own kind of masculine display. His combination of commitment and rougher edges (he can carry a tune, but he’s not Hugh Jackman) gives this overstuffed Scrooged! variation a little soul.
And at the same time, traces of Ferrell’s more anarchic instincts remain. The most Ferrell-esque number in Spirited, “Good Afternoon,” features Ferrell and Reynolds helping a Victorian-era block descend into riot and chaos by uttering the titular (and supposedly inflammatory) phrase. In other words: Boy, that escalated quickly. It’s not as gonzo as similar scenes in the Anchorman movies, but it’s a more sustained bit of shtick than that Holmes & Watson number. As Ferrell has aged out of sports-buffoon parts, dabbled in lame-dad routines, and drifted away from his most reliable collaborator McKay, it hasn’t been clear how he might sustain his particular comic style into later middle age and beyond. Spirited is glossy and insistently sentimental in most of the usual ways, and though it’s not a model of a great musical comedy, it does have an unexpectedly heartwarming afterglow: Ferrell finding a way to sing and dance through a whole movie.
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.