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‘A Christmas Story Christmas’ worth celebrating

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Full disclosure: I was VERY apprehensive about this movie.

As someone who bears a deep and abiding affection for the 1983 holiday classic “A Christmas Story,” I’ve always been leery about any efforts to recapture that movie’s particular quirky magic. The combination of sepia-tinged nostalgia and the verisimilitude of a certain flavor of childhood has always appealed to me.

Let’s put it this way: people like me are the reason that the film gets those 24-hour marathons on basic cable.

Bringing a grown-up Ralphie back into the fold seemed risky. Sure, it was kind of cool that they brought back as many people from that first film’s cast as possible, but even that felt a little stuntish. Why risk the associations so many of us have with the original on a decades-later sequel?

Happily, I worried for nothing, because while this new film doesn’t fully measure up to its predecessor – and really, how could it? – “A Christmas Story Christmas” (currently streaming on HBO Max) manages to strike the balance between the old and the new, creating a different, yet still familiar holiday cinematic experience.

The year is 1973, 33 years after the Christmas of the first film. Ralph Parker (Peter Billingsley) is living in Chicago with his wife Sandy (Erinn Hayes) and their two kids Mark (River Drosche) and Julie (Julianna Layne); he has spent the last year trying to make it as a writer, but his far-too-long sci-fi manuscript isn’t gaining any traction.

The family is greatly looking forward to another wonderful holiday with Ralph’s parents … right up until he receives a phone call from his mother (Julie Hegerty), telling him that his father – the Old Man – has passed away.

Ralph packs up his family and heads back to Hohman, Indiana and the house on Cleveland Street. Upon his arrival, his mom makes him promise that he’ll do whatever he can to make sure that it is a great Christmas, even in the absence of the Old Man. Ralph agrees, even as he wonders just what he’s going to do.

Some things remain the same. The Bumpus family still lives next door; Ralph’s kids befriend one of their kids. There are bullies roaming the streets (although now they have a snowmobile). Ralph’s childhood buddies are still around – Flick (Scotty Schwartz) owns a local bar, where Schwartz (R.D. Robb) does a lot of his drinking – and in many ways, the clock has stopped for Hohman.

But as Christmas creeps ever closer, Ralph finds himself questioning whether he can live up to the standard set by his Old Man and give his family the holiday experience they deserve. And with each mishap, that promise of a perfect Christmas seems ever more unachievable.

There’s always a danger in going back to the well with something like “A Christmas Story.” It was a movie that was very specifically of its era, both in terms of when it was set and when it was made; trying to translate that energy is definitely tricky. Yet for the most part, director Clay Kaytis and company managed the task, delivering a film that felt very connected to the one that came before it.

Obviously, there’s a deep vein of nostalgia at play with a movie like this. And just as obviously, the people involved fully understand that, bringing back as many of the original players as they could to ensure a degree of verisimilitude. The result is that it really does feel like returning to a place you used to live, remembering and reconnecting with the people and places that helped you care about it in the first place.

(I wasn’t sure how I would feel about Peter Billingsley assuming narration duties from Jean Shepherd, but it works well, Besides, who else could possibly do it?)

The story itself is fine, though the efforts to recreate the beats of the first film aren’t always fully successful. That said, the return of the triple-dog dare – while patently absurd and kind of random – will be welcome to anyone who has allowed childhood fearlessness/idiocy to infiltrate their adult lives at any point.

Performance-wise, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Billingsley was a rarity as a child actor – he’d be right at home with the current cohort of Hollywood youngsters – and he has maintained that talent into his dotage. His adult Ralphie is harried and put-upon in a charming way; they even give us a few of the patented far-off stares from the first film. Hayes is good, as are Hagerty and the kids. Schwartz and Robb perhaps haven’t aged as well – Robb hasn’t done much of anything in the past couple of decades and it shows – but we do get a return engagement from Zack Ward’s Scut Farkus, so that’s a plus. And again, this is less about brilliant acting and more about showing us the adults the first film’s actual children grew up to become.

“A Christmas Story Christmas” could have been bad. Like, REALLY bad. Instead, we got a charming, albeit somewhat shaggy look at what happened to an iconic character. In this age of unnecessary decades-late legacy sequels, a movie this good is definitely a win.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 21 November 2022 11:23


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