The MCU’s latest “Special Presentation” is an over-the-top mishmash of feelings, just like the Guardians and the holiday.
One thing you can say about Christmas and the Guardians of the Galaxy is that both tend to go a bit over the top. One’s affection for either depends greatly on how you feel about a good thing taken to excess. For this critic, The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special hits that delicious “too much, but I can’t help but like it” sweet spot like seconds on the pecan pie.
On Knowhere, the giant decapitated Celestial head (you remember Celestials from Eternals, right?) turned riffraff outpost, the Guardians have taken over and appear to be running a fairly pleasant ship. It feels infinitely less overwhelming and threatening than when the team first visited it back in 2014. Still, the transition has reduced Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) to sleepwalking through signing memos and shipping receipts.
Mantis (Pom Klementieff) can’t get past their leader’s state. Especially since she has a secret some may have guessed at back in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, but only gets voiced for the first time here. So when Kraglin (Sean Gunn) adds further fuel to the “poor Peter” fire by describing Quill’s attempt to bring Christmas to the Ravagers (as recounted in a simplistic but effective animated sequence), she feels like she needs to do something to give Star-Lord that old Holiday spirit once more. Dragooning the happy to help even if he doesn’t understand the stakes Drax (Dave Bautista), the two head to Earth. The mission? Snag the legendarily heroic Kevin Bacon (Kevin Bacon) as Peter’s gift. Hilarity ensues.
Placing two supporting characters front and center is always a dicey proposition. What works in small doses doesn’t always prove as effective when it becomes the main attraction. Think Frank the Pug’s transition from an adorable key supporter in Men In Black to a fully suited team member in Men In Black II. No, the dog wasn’t the worst part of that film, but he sure didn’t help. So giving Drax and Mantis the proverbial stick on the spacecraft is not without risk.
Thankfully writer-director James Gunn has a good sense of where “too much but still fun” becomes “too much, and now it’s the worst.” Every time Mantis and Drax seem like they’re about to tax the viewer’s goodwill, Gunn alters the playing field. There are new characters, an action setpiece, or a piece of dialogue to change the emotional valence of the Special. It’s not entirely without the occasional jarring bit of sloppiness, but that fits with the Guardians. Being too polished runs against their brand.
Bacon proves a great piece of the puzzle. His Mantis-induced chill attitude gives him free rein to espouse clichéd nonsense like “actors get to live so many lives” in a way that still snags a chuckle. Or he can acknowledge how angry he’d normally be about being abducted without The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special having to strand him in that reasonable but not especially helpful to the plot response.
Thankfully writer-director James Gunn has a good sense of where “too much but still fun” becomes “too much, and now it’s the worst.”
The brief bits with the other cast members are also appreciated. Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper’s voicework as Groot and Rocket, respectively, remain one of the low-key best tools of the franchise. New addition Maria Bakalova as Cosmo the Spacedog fits in nicely with them, too. Nebula (Karen Gillan) earns her place on the strength of her oddly compelling dance to Bacon’s impromptu concert. Finally, Pratt gets to remind the audience why he was such a revelation in the first film. He can be a charismatic, winning performer who knows his way around a punchline when not forced into projects that demand him to scowl grimly at injustice. Or dinosaurs.
As noted at the start, The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special is all over the place and frequently playing at the edge of being too much to enjoy. At this time of year and with this team, though, it feels right. It’s a sweet holiday confection that tickles the funny bones and plucks a heartstring or two. It’s unlikely to linger with you, but that’s ok. After all, some of the best parts of Christmas are the sugar, the shiny paper, and the goofiness that delight for a moment before going away.
The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special is sitting under Disney+’s tree now.