“Ho, ho, hooooo.”
“It was…soap poisoning!”
“You’ll shoot your eye out!”
If you know those quotes by heart and walk around in December with the folksy, Midwestern voice of Jean Shepherd in your head, might as well admit you’re a member of the cult who grew up watching A Christmas Story on a VHS loop, or the annual TBS marathon. A certified classic now, the film barely made an impact when it was released in 1983. It only took on a glorious second life with home video and ubiquitous cable airings. What’s always distinguished it from other holiday fare is how beautifully it translates Shepherd’s rapier wit and remembrances from his book, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, into script form. Then director/co-writer Bob Clark directed a knockout cast of legends, like Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon, and newbie kid actors, including Peter Billingsley, with impeccable comic timing that tempered the heartstrings with, as young Ralphie would attest, “a touch of mellow smoothness.”
Almost 39 years later, HBO Max is chasing the power of nostalgia with a new holiday-themed sequel, A Christmas Story Christmas. Billingsley is back as a co-writer and reprises the role as adult Ralphie, bringing his own family back to Holman, Indiana for Christmas, where he’ll reunite with his childhood best friends and enemies. For those hoping it attains the heights of the original, lower your expectations. But the good news is that this one is a slow burner. After fits and stops, this sequel finds its nostalgic sweet spot midway through and lands an ending that feels earned and honors the spirit of Shepherd and the characters of A Christmas Story.
Picking up with the Parker family in 1973, Ralphie is now a—gasp—grown up, with a supportive wife, Sandy (Erinn Hayes), raising two kids in Chicago. She’s given Ralphie a generous year to pursue his dream of publishing a novel, but as of November, he’s only got a pile of rejections to show for it. Desperate, he’s shopping his 2000-page manuscript in one last push when he gets the call from home that his Old Man has passed. McGavin’s indelible performance is honored with some gauzy “memory” montages from the first film, which sends Ralphie and his family home to help his mother (played by Julie Hagerty here), and have the kind of Christmas his Old Man would have loved.
From there, A Christmas Story Christmas follows the template of the original: Ralphie and his family embark on a series of familiar seasonal escapades that weave in the neighborhood and beloved characters from the first movie. The formula works best when it leans on the camaraderie of Ralphie reuniting with now-barkeep Flick (Scott Schwartz) and his forever bar tab avoiding bestie Schwartz (R. D. Robb). They rag on each other like small town friends do, and remix the “triple dog dare” sequence from the first into a sledding feat that is the funniest bit of the sequel. Hagerty is also very good as she slips into the housedress of Ms. Parker. She portrays her widowhood with humor and the kind of pragmatic response audiences would expect from the character. There’s even a run-in with Scut Farkus (Zack Ward) that bookends their bully/victim reversal in a way that adds to the story.
Where the movie falls short is in its overreliance on familiar scenarios and the incessant voiceover by Billingsley. Not everyone is graced with the storytelling prowess that Shepherd possessed both on the page and in the vocal telling of his stories. His voiceover as an adult looking back at his childhood in A Christmas Story had an omniscient quality that not only gave the production an authentic nostalgic patina, but he added to the comedy with his note-perfect reactions and quips that functioned like secondary punchlines to the action. Billingsley doesn’t have the same chops, which makes his voiceovers come across more flat than organic—and there’s just too much of it. Too often, director Clay Kaytis doesn’t trust his strong cast to win the comedic moment just within a scene. Ralphie’s interior monologue is instead piped in continuously which steps on scenes that are doing just fine without his commentary. Especially when it comes to the work of the young Parker family, Hayes and kid actors River Drosche (Mark) and Julianna Layne (Julie) do just fine landing their dry comedy so their “dad’s” indulgent remarks get to be very tedious. Less would have been so much more, letting scenes breath and culling comments to a more judicious level.
The ending is the strongest section of A Christmas Story Christmas, as Ralphie’s much-procrastinated task of writing his father’s obituary creates an effective, full-circle connection between Shepherd’s work, the most heartfelt moments of A Christmas Story and the best parts of this sequel. It feels like the writers were working backwards to the outcome, and they stick the landing very well. Will it earn a spot on the heavy rotation holiday list going forward? Maybe not, but it will certainly be worth going back for a visit every few holiday seasons.
Director: Clay Kaytis
Writer: Nick Schenk, Clay Kaytis, Peter Billingsley
Starring: Peter Billingsley, Erinn Hayes, Julie Hagerty
Release Date: November 17, 2022 (HBO Max)
Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe, The Story of Marvel Studios and the upcoming The Art of Avatar: The Way of Water. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett or Instagram @TaraDBen.