Ralphie & family have one last old-fashioned holiday in a sweet & surprisingly uncynical sequel.
Few movies have as much misdirected nostalgia surrounding them as 1983’s A Christmas Story. Directed by Bob Clark and based on Jean Shepherd’s folksy writing, it met with modest box office success (not nearly as much as the decidedly different Porky’s, Clark’s other film released the same year) but was just as quickly forgotten. It wasn’t until more than a decade later, once it made its way to basic cable, that it found a devoted audience. However, the audience didn’t consist of near-senior citizens who found something familiar in its 1940s small-town setting, but younger viewers far removed from that time.
Thanks to TNT (and later concurrently with sister cable network TBS) airing A Christmas Story 24 hours straight on Christmas Eve since the late 90s, now the “nostalgia” for it isn’t tied up in its idealized view of the past, but rather the experience of watching A Christmas Story. Nearly four decades after its initial release, it’s a ubiquitous part of the holiday season, including a musical, merchandise, and tours of the Cleveland, Ohio house in which it was filmed. Where it hasn’t succeeded is sequels, as illustrated in 1994’s My Summer Story and then 2012’s A Christmas Story 2, both of which were met with critical and audience indifference. Now we’re getting another attempt in the bafflingly titled A Christmas Story Christmas, the first to involve most of the original cast.
Set in 1973, young Ralphie Parker is now middle-aged Ralph (Peter Billingsley), living in Chicago, husband to Sandy (Erinn Hayes) and father to Mark (River Drosche) and Julie (Julianna Layne). Ralph, a struggling writer, is still a daydreamer, except now he daydreams about beating Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke for a Pulitzer Prize. No one’s interested in his epic science fiction tome, however, no matter how much Ralph tries to bribe potential publishers with candy, and he’s dismayed with the prospect of having to give up his dream to return to a full-time job.
Though he once swore he wouldn’t go back to his hometown until he was a successful author, Ralph is forced to when his father, affectionately referred to as The Old Man, passes away. Family in tow, Ralph goes back to little Hohman, Indiana, where, somewhat eerily, not a single thing inside or outside his home has changed in over thirty years. Mrs. Parker (Julie Hagerty, replacing Melinda Dillon from the original) seems to be handling The Old Man’s death well, but makes two requests of Ralph: she wants him to (1) write The Old Man’s obituary and (2) take over his extravagant celebration of the holiday. Though he and Sandy have little money, Ralph sets out to give his family the perfect old-fashioned Christmas, while keeping The Old Man’s memory alive.
You may feel some trepidation when Ralph walks into his childhood home and immediately hears the voice of Darren McGavin echoing, “Fraaageeeeelaaayyyy,” like his ghost is trapped there. Indeed, the “remember this?” moments are clumsy and unnecessary. Even the casual Christmas Story viewer will remember the scene where Flick (Scott Schwartz, evidently retired from porn) got his tongue stuck to a pole, negating the need for a flashback, but there’s one anyway. Presumably pressed for time, there’s a scene in which an attic works as a museum to the original film, where the iconic leg lamp, pink bunny suit, and Red Ryder BB gun are all sitting out on display for Ralph to look at wistfully. If A Christmas Story Christmas had consisted entirely of nostalgic moments about a movie that was already trafficking in somewhat forced nostalgia, it would have been the disaster its trailer suggested it would be.
Thankfully, it doesn’t. The stretches where the film isn’t aggressively reminding you of its predecessor are likable, even charming at times. There’s an unexpected bittersweet note, with the viewer left unclear whether it’s funny or sad that Ralph’s childhood buddies Flick and Schwartz (R.D. Robb) never left town or that Schwartz lives with his mother and appears to be a broke alcoholic. There’s even some suggestion of strife in the Parker family, as younger brother Randy (Ian Petrella) drags his feet about coming home until Ralph guilt trips him into it. Granted, this is mainly played for laughs, but there seems to be at least an attempt at trying something a little interesting, which one does not anticipate seeing in a Christmas Story sequel.
The stretches where the film isn’t aggressively reminding you of its predecessor are likable, even charming at times.
Though he could have easily gone the Chevy Chase raging dad route, Billingsley is affable as Ralph, maintaining a good balance between humor and sincerity. Despite its reliance on callbacks, the present-day (well, 1973) setting diverts from the formula in several ways. Rather than making Ralph’s kids provincial, eye-rolling snobs, they’re excited about celebrating Christmas in his hometown. The film goes easy on the 70s references, and save for the fact that Hohman appears to be a working-class town in decline (Flick’s bar, inherited from his father, is awfully busy in the daytime), spends little time on “my, how things have changed” lamenting. There isn’t even the usual grumbling over how no one remembers the true meaning of Christmas – when Ralph and Sandy tell the children they’re going to focus more on gratitude for the holiday, it’s because they don’t have enough money for presents, not because they think the kids are too materialistic.
A Christmas Story Christmas surpasses expectations merely by not being unwatchable. That it’s even often an enjoyable movie (and funny, as illustrated in one scene where a neighborhood kid is seen nibbling on an entire brick of cheese) is a surprise. Yes, the ending is corny (and essentially brings us right back to the beginning of the original), but besides Silent Night, Deadly Night, what Christmas movie doesn’t have a corny ending? That the sentiment doesn’t feel unearned is what matters. Many holiday movies take the approach of “Isn’t Christmas the worst? Don’t you just hate it?” Here, it’s a bit more melancholy: Christmas is wonderful, but it won’t ever be as wonderful as when you were a kid.
A Christmas Story Christmas is now available on HBO Max.