A film review by Craig J. Koban November 23, 2022

A CHRISTMAS STORY CHRISTMAS  jjj

2022, PG, 112 mins.

 

Peter Billingsley as Ralphie  /  Erinn Hayes as Sandy  / River Drosche as Mark  /  Julianna Layne as Julie  /  Julie Hagerty as Mrs. Parker  /  Scott Schwartz as Flick  /   RD Robb as Schwartz /  Ian Petrella as Randy  /  Zack Ward as Farkus 

Directed by Clay Kaytis  /  Written by Nick Schenk, and Clay Kaytis

 

 

 

ORIGINAL FILM

I'm struggling to recall a holiday season when A CHRISTMAS STORY was not a part of my yearly must-watch tradition.  

Directed with a loving eye by Bob Clark (wait a minute, didn't he also make PORKY'S?!) and scripted (and narrated) by Jean Shepherd (based on his own semi-fictional anecdotes from his wonderfully titled 1966 book IN GOD WE TRUST: ALL OTHERS PAY CASH), this 1983 Yuletide classic has been seen by me countless times over the decades (maybe 25...or perhaps 30-plus...I've lost track), almost as much as I've seen IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE.  Both Clark's and Frank Capra's immortal favorites share one thing in common: They were both ignored by the public upon their respective theatrical releases and were saved and made cherished because of being introduced to new generations of families on cable television.  A CHRISTMAS STORY was left dead and buried by audiences during its original cinematic release, but now it's an unmissable tradition during December.  It even went into the Library of Congress's National Film Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."  I always love a comeback story.   

I'll concede, though, that IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE is the better of the two Christmas films, but Clark's is the one that continues to speak most personally to me.  Even though it was set in the 1940s and long before I was ever born, the nostalgic feelings that it ushered in me about my own childhood memories of Christmas with my family - and obsessively annoying my parents to get the toy of my dreams on any given year - felt so immediately relatable.  The little boy hero of that film was the 9-year-old Indiana residing Ralphie -  played by the then improbably adorable Peter Billingsley - that spent most of the story conspiring to get one item for Christmas: The Red Ryder Carbon Action 200-Shot Range Model Air Rifle.  When I was the same age, I begged and pleaded for Kenner's AT-AT: All Terrain Armored Transport from the STAR WARS toy line-up.  My zest for it was insatiable.  Watching little Ralphie in a similar predicament made me feel great empathy for him.  

Spoiler Alert: He got it.  And I got my AT-AT. 

Now, this extremely long preamble brings me to the oddly titled A CHRISTMAS STORY CHRISTMAS (yup, not a typo), an official sequel made nearly 40 years after the release of the original, but containing Billingsley himself playing a fortysomething version of Ralphie that now has his own wife and children and has to face a pressure laden Christmas.  For eagle eyed readers, yes, there have been multiple attempts to sequalize A CHRISTMAS STORY over the years and the results have been mediocre to mixed (there was 1994's MY SUMMER STORY and a direct to video sequel A CHRISTMAS STORY 2 in 2012).  But here's the thing: none of them featured the original cast.  For A CHRISTMAS STORY CHRISTMAS, Billingsley (also serving as producer with his longtime BFF Vince Vaughn) have wisely ignored those aforementioned and failed follow-ups have instead brought back a surprising number of the original cast from the '83 film to chart out the continued adventures of Ralphie, his friends, and his family (albeit transported away from the 40s to the 70s).  A deeply cynical minded filmgoer might easily label A CHRISTMAS STORY CHRISTMAS as a blatant piece of nostalgia bait, and, to be fair, it is.  However, it's not about lazy fan service and instead does what good sequels do in terms of expanding core franchise ingredients and plotting its own course while respecting what came before.  This new film doesn't quite match the scathingly sarcastic bite of the original and it's missing a few key elements that are sorely missed (more on that in a bit), but it's a follow-up done with extreme care and tact and it ushered in similar levels of feel-good warmth in me. 

 

 

And poor Ralphie can't quite catch a break as an adult it seems, and as A CHRISTMAS STORY CHRISTMAS opens we meet back up with him as a struggling sci-fi author that has been slaving away to get any publisher to take his 2000 page manuscript seriously (it's not much of a page turner).  Living in 1973 Chicago with his wife, Sandy (Erinn Hayes) and their two children in Mark (River Drosche) and Julie (Julianna Layne), Ralphie is at his wits end and is contemplating giving up on his dream.  More bad news strikes when his mother, Mrs. Parker (Julie Hagerty, subbing in for the retired from acting Melinda Dillon), calls Ralphie and lets him know that his "Old Man" has passed away (who was played in the original in one of the best father performances ever by Darren McGavin, who died in 2006).  Grief stricken, Ralphie gathers up his clan, jumps in his beater of a 1967 Plymouth, and heads back home to Indiana to help his mother with funeral prep and to make this Christmas one to remember to honor the spirit of his deceased dad.  The big problem that Ralphie faces is that his papa was a master when it came to making memorable Christmas celebrations, leaving him feeling hopelessly inadequate because of the deep shadow he casts, even in death.  That, and Ralphie and his family are really strapped for money, meaning that they'll have to get creative to make Christmas one for the proverbial ages.  While cruising through the old neighborhood, Ralphie reconnects with his old childhood buddies in Flick (a returning Scott Schwartz) and Schwartz (a returning R.D. Robb), both of whom you may remember as a triple dog darer and a frozen pole tongue licker respectively. 

Callbacks to the first film are inevitable here, but most of them are great fun, like a sly moment when Ralphie goes through the family attic as catches a glimpse of that dreadful pink bunny costume that he was infamously gifted by his well meaning aunt, not to mention the fra-gee-lay (it must be Italian!!!) "major award" lamp that his father notoriously won, much to his wife's dismay.  The old family house on Cleveland Street is lovingly preserved and looks like a carbon copy of the one from the 1983 film (astoundingly, this sequel was shot in Bulgaria, but the level of fakery here to make us believe that this is 1970s Indiana is pretty thanklessly spot-on).  It's interesting to discover that Flick has become a local tavern owner and one of his most frequent customers is Schwartz, leading to the former constantly daring him into new socially embarrassing stunts (this one involves a sled and a dangerously steep ice covered ramp).  And remember Farkus, that dreadful red haired hooligan kid that tormented and bullied little Ralphie back in the day?  It appears that his own kids now have taken over for their dad and now begin to terrorize Ralphie's children, which begins with destroying their snowman with a rampaging snowmobile (that's pretty vile).  Of course, no A CHRISTMAS STORY movie would be complete without a shopping trip to the crowded mall and a visit with Santa.  Just before Mark and Julie excitedly rush to meet the red suited impostor, Ralph screams at them "Don't let him kick you in the head!"  We know what he means.   

The sights and sounds here are very familiar to fans of the original, but A CHRISTMAS STORY CHRISTMAS is not just a phoned-in and dry retread of what has come before (it doesn't pull a full-on THE FORCE AWAKENS in terms of remaking the classic that inspired it).  Sarcasm aside, this sequel shares something in common with that 2015 STAR WARS sequel in terms of finally getting back classic characters and the actors that have played them after a multiple decade absence.  Seeing Billingsley (now 51-years old and paradoxically looking both older and younger than he is at the same time, if that makes sense) really commits himself to playing an aging and more world weary version of his most recognizable character that - for better or worse - has defined his life and career.  He's an awfully good sport here and still taps into Ralphie's boundless wellspring of optimism and wide eyed energy while also showing how the advancing years and trials and tribulations as an adult as soured him a tad (plus, what an absolute giddy trip it is to see this once red-glasses adorned blonde mop top child now an old, wrinkled, and being swept up in dad-panic mode thirty years later).  It should be noted too that A CHRISTMAS STORY CHRISTMAS also takes great joy in embracing its different time period and all without making it look too amusingly gaudy (that's always the trick with making 70s themed films).  Some seemingly throwaway elements (like the appearance of rotary phones or the kids' desire for an Easy Bake Oven and Flexible Flyer) will have many Gen-X's (including myself) feeling like they've been bathed in nostalgic waters. 

There are many amusing beats in the film, such as Ralphie's clumsy habit of making not one, but two hospital visits with his kids over preventable mishaps and how everyone at Flick's tavern recoils in terror whenever the phone rings in fear that their better-halves has discovered where they are and will thusly demand a quick return home (they all have a code to not rat on one another).  As previously mentioned, gullible Flick has become a victim twice over because of another triple dog dare in a memorable scene.  Much like young Ralphie of old, daddy Ralphie has a very rich fantasy life, including some soft focused daydream sequences that mark the return of his more confident and rugged alter ego Black Bart, who takes great relish in mocking those that - in reality - have made Ralphie's life miserable (one fantasy scene involves a snobby publisher that rejected him).  And, hey, what about Ralphie's whiny younger brother that was once strapped under so much winter gear by his mama that he couldn't even lower his arms?  He's back too (once again played by Ian Petrella), albeit half way around the world.  Ralphie guilt trips him into coming back home to spend Christmas with the family and pay his respects to their dad.  True to form, he's still whiny. 

Some much of my time watching A CHRISTMAS STORY CHRISTMAS felt like gorging on pure tasty comfort food.  To use another comparison, experiencing this sequel is akin to finding a long lost fuzzy sweater that fit perfectly and felt superb back in the day and then putting it back on.  The makers here have the unenviable task of replicating the spirit of A CHRISTMAS STORY and making their sequel come off as organically linked while feeling uniquely fresh on its own.  In that respect, A CHRISTMAS STORY CHRISTMAS mostly succeeds, but with some caveats.  This follow-up is perhaps a bit too cute and cuddly in direct comparison to its predecessor, which - deep down - drolly deconstructed the cozy, Norman Rockwell veneer of 40s life - and the holiday season in particular - and skewered it with sardonic enthusiasm.  This sequel doesn't have as much deceptive or subversive edge.  Furthermore, what this sequel really misses is Jean Shepherd's impossible to mimic voice permeating the narration track reminiscing about his childhood Christmas days.  Billingsley replaces him for this go-around, which makes sense (he is the adult now on top of Shepherd dying many years ago) and he gives it his all, but he's not much of a substitute for Shepherd here (then again, replicating him would have proven nearly insurmountable with anyone else). 

In the end, A CHRISTMAS STORY CHRISTMAS is - at long last - a worthy sequel that generates good natured guffaws on top of earning its emotional warmth during the spirit of the season.  It serves as both a greatest hits package of what fans of the '83 film fondly remember, but it rarely falls victim to lethargic regurgitation.  Is it the equal of A CHRISTMAS STORY?  Please.  Like that'll ever happen.  But it gives what diehard lovers of Clark's film want in a sequel and without becoming an exercise in dreadful pandering.  And you can tell that Billingsley and company have their hearts deeply entrenched in this film.  A CHRISTMAS STORY CHRISTMAS thankfully doesn't - ahem! - shoot its eye out. 

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