Sequel ‘A Christmas Story Christmas’ Review

Christmas, perhaps more than any other holiday, is a time that has the word “nostalgia” practically baked into its framework. We find comfort in the rituals passed down to us from family and friends when we were young, and then take joy in creating new ones when we’re older. For some of us, even a slight chill in the air is enough to conjure those memories. It’s why some people are so keen on celebrating Christmas the minute November 1 rolls around. Who can resist a free, two-month pass to bask in the warm glow of the past?

A Christmas Story Christmas—HBO Max’s newly streaming, 39-year-later follow-up to the beloved 1983 holiday classic A Christmas Story—knows this well. It’s a film that understands our predilection toward sentimentality. Hell, it wouldn’t exist if its predecessor didn’t so vividly recapture the memories of an old-fashioned 1940s Christmas. From the jump, it stabs you right in the heart for a second, twisted dose of yearning for simpler times by throwing the old Warner Bros. logo from the late 20th century right in your face.

Set in 1973, 33 years after the events of the first film, A Christmas Story Christmas checks back in with Ralphie (Peter Billingsley, reprising his famous role). Now an adult, Ralphie is returning home to his old house in Hammond, Indiana, with a family of his own, following the death of his spitfire father. In the wake of his Old Man’s passing, Ralphie is determined to honor him by giving his family a Christmas as memorable as the one he had all those years ago.

Both unfortunately and unsurprisingly, this leads to a pretty basic plug-and-go structure, with most of the film’s plot replicating the first film beat by beat, just with the dust blown off of it. Its comforts are familiar, and at times very amusing, but after a while, one wonders if A Christmas Story Christmas is going to be anything but cash-grabbing nostalgia-bait—a reminder that we’re all rapidly hurtling towards demise. That is, until the last 20 minutes of the film, when it makes a play for your heartstrings that is so heinously effective, it’s impossible not to fall prey to its wistful charms and have an old-fashioned holiday sobfest.

Photo by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images

Ralphie’s still got his same haircut (now darker and grayed a bit), the same big spectacles, and the same hopeless drive. He’s traded his longing for a Red Ryder BB gun for a shot at becoming a writer, taking a sabbatical from his career to attempt to write the next great American novel. He’s made a pact with his wife, Sandy (Erin Hayes), that if he fails, he’ll return to work in the new year. Turned down by publisher after publisher, Ralphie is staring down the barrel of Christmas with only a few chances left.

When news of his father’s passing comes just weeks before the holiday, Ralphie is devastated. He’s always had a complicated relationship with his father, but it’s one that he wouldn’t trade for the world. So, he scoops his family up and hits the road for Indiana, hoping to revive the spirit of Christmas by forcing them all through the same experiences that made the holiday from 1940 such a standout.

Yes, if you’re looking for a stroll down memory lane this season, you’ve got it here. There are trips to the Higbie’s department store to see the Santa who kicked Ralphie down the slide as a child; run-ins with the Bumpus family next door and a new batch of neighborhood bullies; kids who are desperate for the hottest toys of the moment; and even Ralphie’s car is a piece of shit, just like his Old Man’s.

What’s more, almost the entire original cast returns, with the exception of Ralphie’s Mother (Melinda Dillon), now played by Julie Hagerty, whose warmth and humor make a sufficient stand-in for the beleaguered Parker matriarch. There’s even that old, familiar narration throughout, and Billingsley does a remarkable job at holding up to the stature of Jean Shepherd’s iconic voiceover from the first film.

All that recycled nostalgia is pretty amusing at first, but it wears thin. And it doesn’t take much to see through the small changes either. Instead of frozen flagpoles to stick their tongues to, there’s a frozen junkyard ramp that becomes the triple-dog-dare sledding deathtrap. Most of the jokes ask you, “Isn’t it funny that this thing is like that other thing?”

Photo by Yana Blajeva/HBO Max

How much you enjoy A Christmas Story Christmas will depend on your threshold for this kind of inconspicuous nostalgia. It’s like some spiked eggnog—a little makes you feel warm, and happy, recalling old memories of days of yore. Too much makes you feel deeply depressed about the state of, well, everything.

That’s the real insidious kicker of A Christmas Story Christmas, it not only plays on our natural habit of ruminating on the past, but our fear of mortality as well—and to gut-punching results. When Ralphie returns to his childhood home—an exact replica of the original house from the first film—he looks around for the first time without his father there. Soundbites of Darren McGavin’s beloved lines from the first film echo over the scene while Ralphie’s narration tells us, “It struck me that my Old Man’s voice would never echo through these halls again.” It’s such a cheap ploy for emotion, but damn effective nonetheless. I laughed and got choked up at the same time.

Photo by Yana Blajeva/HBO Max

A Christmas Story Christmas isn’t entirely a regurgitated turkey bone of a movie, it does have some big laughs of its own and a decent dose of originality. (There’s a scene about the treacherous nature of door-to-door carolers that’s particularly hilarious.) But where it really finds its groove is in the film’s last half hour, an incredibly sentimental coda that hits like a brick, reminding us why coming together with our families each year is a gift more precious than anything under the tree. A fair warning to anyone grieving the loss of a loved one this season: put this one on the shelf until next year.

A Christmas Story became such a beloved film because its comedy was derived from creating a family that was both unlike anything we’d ever seen before and completely like our own. The Parkers had their own language and customs; The Old Man would scream things so hoarsely into the night sky that they were unintelligible, and yet we understood them because all of our dads have done some version of the same thing.

For some of us (present company included), the film was released before we were even born and still managed to become an annual staple watch. And though the sequel might rely on repeating that slapstick comedy without really revealing anything new about Ralphie’s family and their own quirks, it manages to work by twisting the knife to make us not just nostalgic for what we had, but grateful for what we have.

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