Because 1983’s “A Christmas Story” has achieved iconic status among holiday movies and has become a nostalgic cornerstone to millions of fans who revisit it every December, it’s easy to forget that the film’s initial success came from its skewering of nostalgia itself.
The original tagline ironically called the film “A Tribute to the Original, Traditional, One-Hundred-Percent, Red-Blooded, Two-Fisted, All-American Christmas,” and director Bob Clark’s adaptation of Jean Shepherd’s comic reminiscences struck a chord precisely because it revealed the greed, venality, occasional cruelty, and recognizably human behavior that lurked beneath the Norman Rockwell façade of hazy Yuletide memories.
After several unsuccessful attempts to craft a sequel to Clark’s film, we finally get “A Christmas Story Christmas,” which brings back several of the original movie’s cast members. While it spends perhaps too much of its running time either recreating or directly quoting moments from its 1983 predecessor, it still manages to land some new and original gags of its own.
The first film harkened back four decades to the 1940s, and this sequel looks back to December 1973, which finds middle-aged Ralphie (Peter Billingsley, who also produced and co-wrote) in the bleak midwinter of his discontent: He’s got until the end of the year to find a publisher for his science-fiction magnum opus (which 14 of a possible 15 companies have already rejected), and he gets a call from his mom (Julie Hagerty, taking over for Melinda Dillon) telling him that his larger-than-life father, “the Old Man,” has passed away.
Ralphie’s parents usually come to Chicago for the holidays, but his dad’s passing means he needs to take his family — wife Sandy (Erinn Hayes, “Bill and Ted Face the Music”), son Mark (River Drosche, “Miracle Workers”) and daughter Julie (Julianna Layne, “Prodigal Son”) — back to the old homestead to throw a “perfect” Christmas in his father’s honor. Attempts at perfection are, of course, a recipe for disaster, and one after another occurs, from the theft of the Christmas presents to an escalating series of winter-related injuries befalling all of Ralphie’s family members.
Going home gives Ralphie the opportunity to reconnect with old pals like Flick (Scott Schwartz) and Schwartz (R.D. Robb), as well as former nemesis Scut Farkus (Zack Ward), and “A Christmas Story Christmas” takes every opportunity to insert old footage to remind us of their (and much of the audience’s) childhood. Director Clay Katis did a brilliant job of updating the “Peanuts” TV specials with this year’s “To Mom (and Dad), With Love,” and when he trusts the new material and his talented ensemble, he scores some wonderful new comedic moments, from the family attempting to avoid aggressive carolers to Ralphie skillfully completing the holiday shopping while his wife and mom knock back martinis in the lounge at Higbee’s department store.
Too often, alas, the film falls into the sequel trap of “we did it then, we gotta do it again now.” It doesn’t dip into this repetition as aggressively as, say, “Coming 2 America,” but these hollow callbacks often feel like a betrayal of both the original film and the hilarious writing that inspired it. (In the narration department, Billingsley is no Jean Shepherd, but to be fair, it’s never as evocative to narrate in the present tense as it is to look backwards.)
It’s always a pleasure to see Hagerty, and Hayes takes a mostly underwritten role and imbues it with comic warmth. There isn’t a ton for the returning vets to do, but Christmas has always been a time to run into people you used to know, see how they’ve aged, give them a hug, and then walk away when everyone runs out of conversation.
Mostly filmed in Bulgaria, this sequel nails the wintry midwestern feel of the material, and the 1973 period touches look accurate without getting too cartoonish. “A Christmas Story Christmas” won’t ever stand up on its own in the holiday pantheon, but unlike “A Summer Story” or the direct-to-video “A Christmas Story 2,” it makes for a suitable decoration to hang off the original.
“A Christmas Story Christmas” premieres on HBO Max Nov. 17.