A Christmas Story Christmas gets a minor award

(from left) Julianna Layne as Julie, River Drosche as Mark, and Peter Billingsley as Ralphie Parker in A Christmas Story Christmas.
(from left) Julianna Layne as Julie, River Drosche as Mark, and Peter Billingsley as Ralphie Parker in A Christmas Story Christmas.

In the franchise-dominated era of filmmaking, we’ve moved into a phase in which no legacyquel is surprising anymore, so when HBO Max announced that it would release A Christmas Story Christmas, there was as much resigned shrugging as there was genuine excitement. Of course a perennial holiday favorite that plays for 24 straight hours every December would get a decades-later sequel if the original star was game enough to return. Why wouldn’t Warner Bros. Discovery go reaching for those eyeballs, those clicks, those subscribers? At a time when legacy sequels and holiday streaming options are both a matter of expectation, it felt like the ultimate no-brainer.

The question that remained after the announcement is whether or not A Christmas Story Christmas’ play to build on the nostalgic appeal of Bob Clark’s 1983 classic would be successful or not. It is, at the very least, a film built on the very direct involvement of star Peter Billingsley, who produced the sequel and has a story credit, so there’s an air of instant legitimacy that other attempted follow-ups didn’t always have. It’s also, like the original film, a movie rooted in deeply relatable, if more grown-up, holiday themes. The result is something that, while never reaching the ineffable magic of Clark’s film, ends up in solidly entertaining, if slightly disjointed, holiday territory.

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More than three decades after the magical Christmas that landed him his trusty Red Ryder BB gun, Ralph Parker (Billingsley) is a married father of two living in Chicago, trying to make his dreams of being a writer into a reality. It doesn’t seem to be going well, and things get a little worse when the first Christmas without Ralph’s beloved Old Man (played by Darren McGavin in archival clips from the original film) looms larger in the Parker household. When he arrives back at his childhood home in Indiana, Ralph learns from his mother (Julie Hagerty) that she expects him to carry on his father’s legacy as the avatar of all things Christmas fun. That means that Ralph, who once spent weeks angling for the perfect present, now has just days to make a perfect holiday experience for his mother, his wife Sandy (Erinn Hayes), his son Mark (River Drosche), and his daughter Julie (Julianna Layne).

“Dad tries to make the perfect Christmas, hilarity ensues” is well-trod holiday movie territory for a reason. It’s something most of us can relate to, whether we’re curating that experience for an entire family or just for ourselves. It’s also a way for screenwriters Nick Schenk and Clay Kaytis (the latter of whom also directed) to mark a transition point in Ralph’s life, one in which his daydreaming and dream-chasing must be, if not put aside, then at least harnessed for more altruistic pursuits. Most of us can remember the moment we started to realize that holidays take actual work, and that our parents were doing that work even when we didn’t notice it, which makes this a very good place to start Ralph’s adulthood adventure. What the film does next is a jumbled mixture of Play-the-Hits callbacks, by-the-numbers mishaps, and some genuinely emotional storytelling.

It all begins, naturally, with centering Billingsley as Ralph once again, and the star of A Christmas Story Christmas returns to the role keenly aware of how important it is to so many people. There’s a strange weight to it when he lapses into the character’s trademark, faraway daydreaming stare, like he knows viewers everywhere are hanging on those looks, and yet Billingsley adapts to Ralph as a parent and husband with ease. There’s a calm confidence to his performance, a comfort that runs through the whole film, so when he reconnects with old pals like Flick (Scott Schwartz) and Schwartz (R.D. Robb) at the local bar, it doesn’t feel artificial. That sense of the genuine extends to his life as a new patriarch trying to make the holidays enjoyable for his family, which means that when the hijinks ensue, we’re naturally rooting for this guy. It’s a solid performance, even if it does take a little while to get used to Billingsley taking over narration duties from the late writer Jean Shepherd.

Even without Shepherd’s voice, though, Schenk and Kaytis do an admirable job of trying to mimic the author’s style, which took Ralphie’s casual observances about the ins and outs of a Midwest childhood and elevated them to the level of grandiose mythology. Some lines ring a little hollow, but when the film is musing over how to keep a busted radiator going in an old Plymouth, or what it means when the phone rings at the bar, it feels like we’re slipping into new corners of the same familiar world.


A Christmas Story Christmas – Official Trailer

Unfortunately, that tone doesn’t spread to every part of the film, and there are points when A Christmas Story Christmas advances just a little too far from the laid-back, raconteur style that so informed the original film. Certain elements, like yet another dare between Flick and Schwartz, feel like they happen because the audience expects them, not because we’re watching someone recount their genuine, often bizarre view of Midwest life around the holidays. It’s understandable, but still discordant, in the same way that shots clearly meant to mimic the original in framing and tone can never quite recapture the 35-millimeter magic and texture of Clark’s Christmas lights glowing in the Indiana night.

These moments create a glaring sense of artificiality that A Christmas Story, flaws and all, never had, but they don’t overshadow the sturdy, festive core at the center of A Christmas Story Christmas. This film, like Ralphie’s old BB gun, will never live up to the idea in our minds of what we hope it could be, but that doesn’t stop it from delivering moments of genuine charm and warmth. And after all, as one character points out midway through the film: The perfect Christmas doesn’t exist. You just do what you can, and A Christmas Story Christmas definitely does what it can to make the season just a little brighter.

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