Director: Clay Kaytis
Starring: Peter Billingsley, Erinn Hayes, Julie Hagerty, Scott Schwartz, R.D. Robb, Zack Ward, Ian Petrella, River Drosche, Julianna Layne
Running Time: 98 min.
★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
"You'll shoot your eye out" might be one of the most quoted lines in all of movies, but there's no Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle to be found in A Christmas Story Christmas, director Clay Kaytis' agreeably pleasant sequel to the 1983 holiday staple. An initial flop in theaters, annual TBS marathons and decades worth of reappraisal significantly bolstered A Christmas Story's reputation, but as strange as this sounds, the nostalgic, coming-of-age classic is still underrated. And this follow-up mostly serves to hammer home just how well made it was, deliberately trying to replicate the feelings we had watching it, but unable to escape the original's shadow. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, it acknowledges its predecessor, while still attempting to spiritually recreate it with many of the same characters and situations in a new story. Complicating matters is that many of those scenes are the weakest ones, honoring the original by reminding us of everything it did better.
Far superior to 2012's forgettably embarrassing straight to DVD follow-up, A Christmas Story 2, this at least has a sensible plot that uses the first film as its guidepost, reuniting original cast members and even occasionally capturing its tone and warmth. Unfortunately, it isn't all that funny, with an assortment of call-backs and gags that sort of fall flat, making its 98 minutes sometimes crawl by. But fans will be extremely happy to know that most of what works can be attributed to star Peter Billingley, revisiting his most famous role after spending some time behind the camera. All that wide-eyed enthusiasm he effortlessly projected as a child actor carries into adulthood, as he displays impeccable timing and conveys a sincerity that redeems a lot of the material. And while it may have been interesting to see what he could do with a stronger script, this still had a very high bar to clear.
It's December 1973 (33 years after the events of A Christmas Story) and Ralphie Parker (Billingsley) is living in Chicago with his wife Sandy (Erinn Hayes) and two young children Mark (River Drosche) and Julie (Julianna Layne). Taking a year off from work to pursue a career as a sci-fi novelist, Ralphie's met with constant rejection from publishers who find his writing overly long. Ready to abandon his dreams and return to a 9 to 5 grind, his mother, Mrs. Parker (Julie Hagerty, taking over for Melinda Dillon) calls, breaking the news that his father, "the Old Man," has died. Devastated, the family makes their way back to Ralphie's home of Hammond, Indiana to spend Christmas with the grieving Mrs. Parker.
Ralphie's return to his old stomping grounds sees him reconnecting with old friends like Flick (Scott Schwartz) and Schwartz (R.D. Robb), as well as his childhood nemesis, Scut Farkis (Zack Ward). Faced with the impossible task of taking up the mantle of Christmas from the Old Man, Ralphie must show his own kids the true meaning of the holiday, as they too face neighborhood bullies, store Santas and bodily injuries. Struggling to write an obituary for a parent who defies description, Ralphie must also avert disaster to somehow make the holiday as special for his family as the Old Man did for him.
In concept, this was the right approach. Having the story take place thirty years later with an forty something Ralphie taking his family back home to help Mrs. Parker deal with the Old Man's death is a viable sequel idea. Add on top of that a bunch of returning characters most didn't expect to see entertainingly reprising their roles and it's kind of a shock this didn't turn out better. Billingsley's a wonderful presence in carrying it, but the more Kaytis attempts to put a fresh coat of paint on some of the original's more famous sequences, all the ways this falls short become clearer.
Billingsley does fine job handling the voiceover narration, but there's something special about an older person looking back on their childhood that just can't be duplicated here. Or more accurately, it's Jean Shepherd, whose iconic and sweetly sardonic delivery in the '83 film perfectly complimented the absurdity unfolding in front of us. It certainly helps too that he wrote it, but given his passing over twenty years ago, this was an unavoidable obstacle with any sequel. Adult Ralphie's voiceover seems to be narrating things as they occur, and there's a little too much of it, sometimes underlining action rather than providing invaluable reminiscences and sarcastic quips that enhance what we're watching.
Having the plot revolve around the Old Man's death works in tying the two films together while also functioning as a fitting tribute to the late Darren McGavin, who's a primary reason that Bob Clark's original has endured for so long. His straight-faced exuberance at the leg lamp's arrival is what made that sequence so hilarious, and given all the call-backs, it's kind of surprising Kaytis elects not to do something (anything!) with the lamp again. Then again, maybe he should be praised for his restraint since an early dream sequence involving Ralphie's writing that pays homage to the original isn't successful in either timing or execution. They try this a few more times throughout with mixed results but the more subtle nods that advance this story tend to land better.
While A Christmas Story contained more than a modicum of dark humor and fear that reflected how a child would view the world, this tackles the much heavier issue of losing a parent. It makes you wonder whether Clark's film could even include a storyline like that and still be remembered as fondly. Luckily, it never needed to, so it's somewhat of a miracle that this is handled well enough to result in a touching pay off that makes sense in justifying what some might consider a surprisingly depressing start.
Julie Hagerty's a solid choice to replace the now retired Melinda Dillon as Mrs. Parker since they share similar dispositions and personalities on screen, but even putting aside the continuity issue, the character's sort of portrayed as an airheaded lush. Erinn Hayes isn't asked to do all that much as Ralphie's wife, Sandy, but she delivers, sharing good chemistry with Billingsley and radiating a down home perkiness that enhances the proceedings. It's no fault of the child actors that the slightest material involves them, as they're saddled with recreating original Ralphie milestones, including an underwhelming bully subplot and a visit with the Higbees department store Santa that doesn't really go anywhere.
When the movie stops pretending it's about anything other than Ralphie coming to terms with the loss of his dad and becoming a published writer it starts blossoming, leading to its two best sequences. One involves a variation on a certain triple-dog dare and some drunken sledders, while the other sees Ralphie having a much anticipated rematch with Farkus, with Zack Ward flawlessly recapturing his character in middle age as if no time's passed at all. Another highlight is the reappearance of Ralphie's little brother Randy (Ian Petrella) who's strangely still recognizable, whining and crying like a baby.
Moments like the ones with Farkus and Randy, or even the retro title credits, go a long way, even if the insertion of flashbacks from the original are an unnecessary distraction we could have used less of. But sequeling a classic is a thankless task, so A Christmas Story Christmas probably turned out
better than expected given the many challenges. This was at least approached with the right intentions, even as it too frequently invites unavoidable comparisons to a movie
it's sincerely trying to celebrate.