I will be the first to admit that A Christmas Story is not my go-to holiday film. I find the narration distractingly wordy, the acting stilted, and the protagonist Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley)insufferable in his misguided quest for a Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle. That said, my wife’s dedication to watching it every year has endeared other qualities of it to me; the warm and familiar Jean Shepherd’s narration, the fantastical imaginings of a 10-year-old boy, and the hard outside but gooey center of the Old Man (the late Darren McGavin).
When it was announced that the film would be getting a sequel (for clarity, the poorly conceived A Christmas Story 2, released in 2012, is better lost to the annals of movie anonymity) – I was not precisely thrilled. Shepherd (who the story was written by and based on) and McGavin, the two anchors of my enjoyment of the original, would not be involved. Shockingly, A Christmas Story Christmas outpaces the original and quickly cements itself into an instant, must-watch classic.
Now an adult with a wife and two kids, Ralphie (Billingsley) returns to his childhood home after the passing of The Old Man. He’s here to help his mother (Julie Hagerty taking over for Melinda Dillon) and provide the perfect Christmas his father gave him. Meanwhile, he struggles with his writing career and the grief of losing a parent. His wife Sandy (Erinn Hayes) and kids Mark and Julie (River Drosche and Julianna Layne) struggle with having Christmas in Ralphie’s childhood hometown. During their stay, they face off against bullies, ice, and the age-old dilemma of the star vs. the angel.
Much like the original, Ralphie narrates the story. Billingsley does not attempt to replicate Shepherd’s tone but instead, in his voice, seamlessly blends the enthusiasm and warmth Shepherd brought to the original. Rather than simply serve as a gimmick or nod to the original, the narration is given purpose in both by a clever twist I loved for its sheer felicity of storytelling. Writer/director Clay Kaytis and co-writer Nick Schenk create a sequel that not only seems necessary but brings the same kind of nostalgia. What the original had for parents growing up in the 1940s, A Christmas Story Christmas has for those who grew up in the 1970/80s. Most importantly, the new film is actually funny! From tongue-in-cheek callbacks to the original to new slapstick, the film elicited laughs throughout.
The main strength of this sequel, however, is the heart. Regardless of the original, the new story is about coping with the loss of a parent, moving forward from that grief, and finding in it new inspiration for how to live your life. Readers who have lost a parent, know this film does not shy away from grief. Instead, it leans into that very real, very present emotion and builds a narrative around it. The filmmakers do not do this callously to exploit the characters; instead, it feels like a proper memorial to McGavin and Shepherd. It made me miss my family. It made me think of the Christmases of my childhood and reflect on how that has shaped my present Christmas spirit. The film was cathartic, and the ending was truly beautiful.
Ultimately, A Christmas Story Christmas stands on its own, both as a Christmas film and one about moving on after the death of a parent. This sequel absolutely dazzles and achieves the rare feat of enhancing the original. The returning cast provides an anchor, and the new cast shines in their own roles. The writing is thoughtful and sincere and the direction clear and well-paced. While some may balk the theme of grief in a holiday comedy, it is well-done and executed with care. Fans of the original will love A Christmas Story Christmas and newcomers will almost surely seek out and its predecessor.