A Christmas Story Christmas Review: The Holiday Classic's Magic Can't Be Replicated, But It's The Thought That Counts

It's been almost 40 years since the holiday classic "A Christmas Story" followed young Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley) as he pined for the ultimate Christmas gift back in the glory days of the 1940s: an official Red Ryder, carbine action, 200-shot, range model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time. The original 1983 holiday comedy has become a fierce favorite around the holidays, so much so that it's earned a now-traditional 24-hour marathon every single year, stretching from Christmas Eve into Christmas Day. 

Now Peter Billingsley has returned for "A Christmas Story Christmas," which seeks to give fans a legacy-quel that follows an adult Ralphie as he attempts to give his own family a Christmas they'll never forget. Not only is Billingsley back as Ralphie in front of the camera, with his brilliant and occasionally mischievous blue eyes still shining bright behind rounded spectacles, but he also has a big role behind the scenes as both a producer and co-writer. Though the film expectedly follows in the snowboot footsteps of its predecessor, for better and for worse, there comes an added layer of heart as Ralphie, his wife Sandy (Erinn Hayes), son and daughter (River Drosche and Julianna Layne), and mother (Julie Hagerty stepping in for Melinda Dillon) come to terms with the sudden passing of The Old Man (the late Darren McGavin) just a few days before Christmas.

Lovely, glorious, beautiful Christmas

The reason "A Christmas Story" has endured after all these years is because of how it washes away the Norman Rockwell-esque glimmer of Christmas in America. Rather than giving us an endlessly chipper family unconditionally loving each other in the 1940s and basking in the joy of togetherness during the holiday season, director/co-writer Bob Clark and the stories of author Jean Shepard give us the Parkers and a handful of neighborhood kids incessantly barking at each other in the days leading up to Christmas. 

Ralphie and his brother Randy are endlessly fighting with each other. The Old Man is always pissed off about something. Ralphie's mother never gets a warm meal to herself. Every kid in the movie, including Ralphie's friends, is a scheming or whiny brat of some kind. But most importantly, Ralphie is desperately vying for that Red Ryder BB gun, even after his first brush with corporate-sponsored disappointment thanks to a crummy commercial for Ovaltine. There's greed, crass capitalism, pettiness, bitterness, bullying, peer pressure, and a dysfunctional Midwestern family who is at each other's throats. It flies directly in the face of the roundtable of smiling family members surrounding a steaming turkey dinner and the shiny tinsel of the perfect Christmas that graced the covers of "The Saturday Evening Post." But that doesn't mean there isn't love and a helping of true holiday magic at the center of all that dysfunction, and that's what makes "A Christmas Story" so beloved to this day.

Thankfully, "A Christmas Story Christmas" keeps the spirit of casual cynicism and irresistible charm alive as it flashes forward to 1973 (and ignores "A Christmas Story 2"). This time, Ralphie is after two things. First, he wants to sell his lengthy sci-fi novel "Neptune's Oblivion" to a big Chicago publisher after spending a year on the book and hoping to break free from the rat race of the big city. But that takes somewhat of a backseat to helping give his widowed mother and the rest of his family a memorable Christmas to help alleviate the grief they're all feeling after the passing of The Old Man. Both of these story threads fuel the ups and downs of a Christmas filled with friendly reunions, slapstick antics, some clever family comedy, and of course a big holiday heart. But the overall result is a mixed bag that is weighed down by clumsy nostalgia.

Heavy-handed nostalgia

"A Christmas Story Christmas" mostly stays close to the path of its predecessor (and thankfully stays far from any other sequels that followed) once Ralphie and his family head back to Hohman, Indiana after Ralphie's mother calls with the bad news. Once Ralphie's mother says she doesn't want to wallow in sadness, she makes her son promise to deliver the perfect Christmas. From there, we get plenty of family flourishes from the original movie: finding a Christmas tree, decorating it, shopping at Higbee's department store, seeing Santa Claus, dealing with neighborhood bullies, and all that jazz. 

Peter Billingsley is also providing the film's narrative voiceover all the way through. It's a somewhat distracting change, as it never feels quite as natural or clever as Jean Shepard's narration in the original, mostly because there's not much of a perspective shift between the adult Ralphie we're watching and the one narrating the story. In the sequel, the narration acts more as a present-day inner monologue rather than a wiser voice from the future looking back on the past. The good news is that Billingsley still has some of that boyish charm from his childhood, allowing him to ham it up for comedy while still giving a touching performance when the story requires it. Ralphie even still has silly daydreams that provide some goofy levity.

The biggest problem with "A Christmas Story Christmas" is that it tries too hard to remind you about the warm feelings that the first movie gives fans. The allusions to the original film are painfully obvious, and they're occasionally made unnecessarily more obvious by having quick, intrusive flashes of clips or lines from "A Christmas Story" for those who somehow don't remember for whatever reason. Do we really need to hear The Old Man's line about Ralphie looking like a "pink nightmare" when we see the pink bunny suit that Ralphie was famously forced to wear on Christmas? Isn't just the sight of the bunny suit in a dusty box enough to get the point across? It would be as if, when we saw the Millennium Falcon in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," we heard Han Solo's voice echo, "She may not look like much, but she's got it where it counts," just as Finn and Rey run towards the ship to make their escape. It's constantly reminding you how much you love "A Christmas Story," almost to the point that you might feel like you should be watching that for the umpteenth time instead.

Don't shoot your eye out just yet

Where "A Christmas Story Christmas" succeeds is in creating new vignettes that capture the more unsung elements of life in the 1970s, especially around the holidays. There are funny flourishes like the terror that the local barflies feel when the hometown pub's phone rings with a wife looking for their absent husband, and these scenes are the best showcase for returning cast members R.D. Robb and Scott Schwartz as Ralphie's childhood friends Schwartz and Flick. Comparatively, the return of Ian Petrella as Ralphie's brother Randy feels tacked on in the worst way possible.

The Parkers are still a family without a lot of money, so there are also practical discussions about the family budget and affording a good Christmas for the kids, something that rings true to the middle-class nature of the original. Ralphie's family shares some of the same snarky banter too, especially when it comes to having the kids decorate the tree while the adults watch and drink wine. Those kinds of conversations take a turn to familiar cynical comedy, especially when the kids are told that they might need to lower their expectations when it comes to the Christmas gifts they'll receive. Their reaction is predictably upset when they're told to focus on gratitude and to remember that trite phrase, "It's the thought that counts." All of these moments allow for some decently hearty laughs. 

Even so, part of the problem with "A Christmas Story Christmas" is that, on more than one occasion, it feels more like a legacy-quel for "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" than the franchise it is meant to be paying tribute to, and you'll know those moments when you see them. That's especially true when you realize that, for no clear reason, there's absolutely no funeral planning or even a single mention of what's being done with The Old Man in the wake of his passing, other than an obituary that Ralphie is asked to write by his mother. That ends up providing the emotional backbone for the movie and Ralphie's character arc as an adult, but part of me wishes that emotional core resonated more significantly. And that's coming from someone who lost their father just after the Christmas of 2020, which should make me prime to let the tears flow. 

Unfortunately, no matter how hard "A Christmas Story Christmas" tries to replicate what audiences loved about the original, it can't help but feel overshadowed by the legacy of nostalgia that the 1983 classic inspires. Like "The Force Awakens" and "Ghostbusters: Afterlife" before it (and plenty of other legacy-quels), this follow-up to "A Christmas Story" relies too much on the reverence for its predecessor without carving out enough remarkable new memories for itself. That doesn't make it downright terrible, but it does make it mostly forgettable and only temporarily entertaining. But you know what? Maybe it really is the thought that counts. 

/Film Rating: 6 out of 10