Bob Clark’s original A Christmas Story is a classic, despite efforts to oversaturate the culture with its presence. Under Clark’s direction, what might have been sentimental sludge was transformed into something special, bursting with ironic scenes, memorable lines, beloved performances, and a sense of naughtiness only the man who gave us the holiday slasher Black Christmas and sex-comedy Porky’s could. It became, over time, one of the most watched and cherished movies of all-time, though its success would be hard, if not impossible, to duplicate.
That didn’t stop them from trying, of course. Clark even directed a sequel, 1994’s My Summer Story, and we won’t get into the half-dozen other made-for-TV versions of Jean Shephard’s ‘In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash’, which the man himself narrated most of. None are as memorable and most are forgettable, if not regrettable. Let’s face it; at this point A Christmas Story is product, which is fine because Christmas™ itself is a product.
Now Warner Bros’ is trying again with A Christmas Story Christmas, only this time with the bonus of featuring nearly all of the original cast. It’s not a great movie, or even a great sequel (or follow-up if we’re being nitpicky), but it’s the best follow-up to the original film, which is something. As far as products go, it’s perfectly fine.
It’s 1973, and Ralph, i.e., Ralphie, Parker (Peter Billingsley) is all grown up, happily married to the beautiful and very understanding Sandy (Erinn Hayes) and father to two kids (River Drosche and Julianna Layne). He’s also a struggling author, having taken a gap year from work to finish his first novel, Neptune’s Oblivion (easily the funniest gag in the film), but at over 2,000 pages no publisher will touch it. Realizing he needs to support his family, Ralph gives himself until Christmas to find a publisher or else give up the dream and head back to the grind.
While the Parker family planned to welcome Ralph’s parents to their home in Chicago when things take a turn for the worse; Ralph gets the phone call from his mom (an adorable Julie Hagerty, replacing original mom, and retired actress, Melinda Dillion) tells him his father, the Old Man, has passed away. The Parkers climb into their busted 1966 Plymouth and head back to Indiana to spend Christmas with their grieving grandma. Saddened, but always supportive, mom just has two requests: she’d like Ralph to write his father’s obituary and to make this Christmas a magical one.
Back in the old neighborhood Ralph connects with his old pals, all from the original film, of course, including Flick (Scott Schwartz), who now owns a bar, Schwartz (R. D. Robb), a happy alcoholic who’s run up an unpayable tab at Flick’s bar, and even Scut Farkus (Zack Ward), Ralph’s former bully, makes an appearance – but I won’t spoil how. Ralph’s younger brother Randy (Ian Petrella) also shows up, but only briefly.
Despite only appearing in flashbacks and photos, the spirit of Darren McGavin, who passed away in 2006, inhabits nearly every frame of A Christmas Story Christmas, allowing the film to tread in places it wouldn’t have otherwise dared go. In a way, writing the Old Man’s obituary for Ralph becomes an existential version of younger Ralphie’s precious Red Ryder, carbine action, 200-shot, range model BB gun (with a compass in the stock, of course).
His need to live up to his father’s example, both in giving his family a memorable Christmas while also doing his dad’s memory proud, will guide every decision he makes. Along the way he’ll learn that “making it look easy” is what good parents do, even when things look dire and there’s not enough eggs to keep the radiator running.
The time-shift to the 1970s works on two levels, one giving these characters enough time to grow, reproduce, and become the very things they once feared. The other, like all things with A Christmas Story Christmas, is weaponized nostalgia. The demographic who first watched, rewatched, then shared the original film countless times with others was birthed during the decade of disco, bell bottoms and unironic mustaches, and now they’re all grown up. The nostalgia they feel isn’t just for the movie, but their own childhoods.
The popularity of A Christmas Story is really how a confluence of several factors helped create an unintentional classic, not the least of which is that it’s actually a really good movie. Released at just the right time in the 1980s when cable television and VHS home rentals would add a new (profitable post-theatrical) dimension to film watching, as well as being a prime example of the decade’s obsession with “narration” films and shows, Bob Clark’s ode to the holidays would flop in theaters but would become one of the most beloved films of all-time by virtue of being shown on endless loops around the holidays. It’s in good company, as both It’s a Wonderful Life and The Shawshank Redemption took similar paths to infamy.
A Christmas Story Christmas, on the other hand, is about utilizing existing intellectual property to fill a streaming service with content. Director and co-writer Clay Kaytis (with Nick Schenk, known mostly for Clint Eastwood movies Gran Turino, The Mule, and Cry Macho) does an admirable job mimicking much of Bob Clark’s film, right down to the fantasy vignettes and continued narration (with Billingsley doing a surprisingly capable, if different, interpretation of Jean Shephard). But it’s still mimicry, and there’s even a side-by-side comparison running during the credits showcasing how the original film “inspired” many of its shot-for-shot recreations.
I mean, we all know this is what happened, but to see the filmmakers so openly celebrating pillaging Clark’s film feels like privileged students bragging how they purchased homework from the smarter, more capable kids. It’s not often you see cinematic plagiarism so confidently on display, but nothing sums up A Christmas Story Christmas better.
And yet…there’s something about this film that intrigues even as it plunders, something watchable in seeing these familiar faces, now older, return four decades later. There have been so many “official” Christmas Story sequels, but none featuring Peter Billingsley and those dorky glasses. It’s hard not to feel something if you grew up watching him utter “oh fudge!” and having Santa kick him down the tube, only to return with his own children. Maybe we’ve become so desensitized to legacy sequels giving us “another adventure” with childhood favorites it’s hard to be cynical when Hollywood grants our wishes.
In this way A Christmas Story Christmas is exactly like another beloved 1980s classic that’s been remade/rebooted for both existing fans and newer generations, Cobra Kai. Characters’ memories are actually just footage from the original film, events now parallel events then 1:1, and when all else fails familiar musical cues chime in to make everything feel like home again. Because most of the original cast returns, some 40 years later, if you don’t recognize someone don’t worry – the footage will play so you don’t have to worry about remembering the thing you love so much.