“Spirited” begins and ends like a feel-good family Christmas movie.

Unlike many renditions of Charles Dickens’ novella “A Christmas Carol,” this film takes the framework of the old story to create a new one — and at first, that seems like a good thing. When we see elf-like spirits running a high-tech Christmas op, Will Ferrell dressed in colorful holiday garb, and high-energy harmonies over tap dancing, we get the message to settle in for a blend of “The Santa Clause,” “Elf,” and “The Greatest Showman.”

But along the way, we get flavors of “Grease,” Saturday Night Live, and “Dear Evan Hansen” sprinkled in. 

Director Sean Anders’ attempt at a musical-romcom-soul search holiday flic is as messy as it sounds. But like its protagonist, it just manages to redeem itself in the end.

In the 127-minute Apple Original, we meet the Ghost of Christmas Present (Ferrell) — who, along with his counterparts of Past and Future, works with an entourage of ghost minions to spark the Christmas Carol conversion in a wayward soul each year. So far, it holds water as a clever twist on a classic tale.

But as soon as we meet this year’s chosen soul, cocky and cutthroat CEO Clint Briggs (Ryan Reynolds), the movie spirals out of control.

To its credit, “Spirited” at least takes a stab at a big moral question: “Do people really change? I mean, real, lasting, positive change?” Ferrell’s voice asks in the opening scene. The question compels us to expect an answer by the end. But as Clint and Christmas Present argue their way through the familiar Christmas Eve haunt, and as the plot jerks back and forth between moments in both of their lives, the journey to that answer becomes as aimless as our relativistic and distracted culture.

The plot goes through so many fits and starts that it fails to build momentum in one direction or another. One minute, it seems Clint is about to have a heart-changing moment while viewing a Christmas past with his dying sister. Next minute, he’s leading a song telling Christmas Present to stop running from his own past human life. In one moment, Clint and Christmas Present break into song about how occasionally being rude is a welcome break from a strict habit of goodness. Just a few scenes later, Christmas Present sings a ballad wondering if he can ever escape his mistakes.

On top of the zigzag storyline, the film piles on another layer of distraction by leaning on sexual innuendos — not just as off-color jokes but as plot points. There are entire conversations about Clint’s sex appeal, as well as a disruption to the night’s operation when one ghost announces that she slept with him. What happened to the feel-good family musical we started out with?

It isn’t until the last moments that “Spirited” finally finds its moral footing — and it almost makes up for the previous stumbles.

After a climactic moment of reconciliation, Clint and Christmas Present see that becoming a good person is not an overnight switch but a continual work in progress. They sing about how most of us are neither Scrooge nor saint, but we’re all meant to put in daily effort to grow in virtue and transform the world for good, one step at a time. 

That is a message as encouraging as it is true. So why was it such a long and dizzying road to get there? Perhaps because of the modern cultural distaste for clear-cut morality. Such a morally ambiguous view rejects the notion of identifiable heroes and villains, lighthearted innocence, a simple moral of the story. But then, isn’t that what good Christmas movies are all about?

Had it cleaned up the humor and simplified the plot, “Spirited” could have been a great family Christmas movie. Still, it has its moments. Watch the first and last twenty minutes for a clean, straightforward, uplifting message about how to change a heart — and for some killer tap dancing. Forget the rest.

“Spirited” is available to stream on Apple TV+.

Sophia Martinson is a wife and mom with a passion for reading, writing, and home arts. She is a freelance culture...