If Hollywood delivered a decades-later sequel titled “It’s Still a Wonderful Life” that picked up the story of Zuzu Bailey as a middle-aged florist undergoing her own existential crisis, or “Another Miracle on 34th Street,” with Susan Walker all grown up and having forgotten she once believed in Kris Kringle, you wouldn’t expect either to be great, right? You might even question the wisdom of anyone even attempting such a follow-up.
That’s how I felt when I heard about “A Christmas Story Christmas,” the long discussed and finally realized sequel to the 1983 cultural touchstone. Was it wise to drop in on the life of the adult Ralphie Parker after all these years? Isn’t there something magical about Ralphie and the Old Man and Flick and Schwartz and all the rest forever frozen in nostalgia?
Remember or not, we actually did get a sequel to “It’s a Wonderful Life” in the forgettable and regrettable 1990 Family Channel movie “Clarence,” with Robert Carradine (!) as the angel Clarence Odbody, and there WAS a sequel of sorts to “A Christmas Story” in “A Christmas Story 2” (2012), a straight-to-DVD release set six years after the events of “A Christmas Story.” with a young fellow named Braeden Lemasters as a teenage Ralphie and Daniel Stern as the Old Man. Still, it’s as if “A Christmas Story 2” never existed for 99.9% of the population.
‘A Christmas Story Christmas’
Now comes a legitimate sequel: “A Christmas Story Christmas,” directed by Clay Kaytis and based on the characters and writings of Jean Shepherd. You won’t be surprised to hear it’s not the equal of the original, but it succeeds as a sweet, family-friendly follow-up, with the welcome return of Peter Billingsley as Ralph and a number of other actors back in their iconic roles. It’s a bit like attending a 40-year reunion and telling old stories while trying to re-create a few of those crazy adventures from days gone by.
The exact year of “A Christmas Story” was never specified (it’s either 1940 or 1941), but the kitchen calendar informs us the sequel is set in December of 1973, with Billingsley’s Ralphie Parker serving as our narrator, telling us we’re at “our humble abode on the South Side of [Chicago], just like I remember in all of its yellow, orange and avocado green glory.” Ralphie is married to the lovely and kind Sandy (Erinn Hayes), and they have two adorable children, Mark (River Drosche) and Julie (Julianna Layne), who are very excited for Christmas, which will really kick into gear when Ralphie’s parents arrive in Chicago in a couple of days. In the meantime, Ralphie is desperately trying to sell his first novel, a 2,000-page sci-fi opus titled “Neptune’s Oblivion,” which has been rejected by more than a dozen publishers. (Hmmm, if only Ralphie would consider writing about experiences closer to home…)
Then comes the call from Ralphie’s mother. The Old Man is gone.
Ralphie, Sandy and the kids make the drive to Ralphie’s hometown of Hohman, Indiana, where they’ll spend the holidays with Ralphie’s mom (Julie Hagerty) in “our old house on Cleveland Street [that] looked like it had been frozen in time.”
Indeed it does. But given the Old Man has died, doesn’t that mean Christmas will be put on hold for a memorial service? The script handles that issue by having Ralphie’s mom say, “All that can wait. Your father was so excited about Christmas. If he saw us moping around, he’d throw a fit.” This gives the family license to embark on a series of adventures involving snowball fights; battles with some local bullies; the quest for the perfect toys; a couple of slapstick injuries, and of course, a visit to Higbee’s Department. Store, with its amazing window displays, and a Santa Claus who still sits way up high and a helper elf who dumps kids down a precarious slide.
Director Kaytis indulges in a few fun stylistic flourishes, e.g., a snowball fight is filmed like a shootout in a Spaghetti Western, but for the most part, “A Christmas Story Christmas” is rendered in a low-key, straightforward style, as Ralphie struggles with the loss of his father, his flailing writing career and a number of setbacks to his plans for a perfect Christmas. In the process, he reconnects with pivotal figures from his past, including Flick (Scott Schwartz), who has inherited Flick’s Tavern from his old man; Schwartz (R.D. Robb), who famously triple-dog dared Flick to stick his tongue on that frozen pole and these days is running up a huge tab at Flick’s Tavern and living with his mom, and the notorious Scott “Scut” Farkus (Zack Ward), and we’ll leave it to you to discover what happened to ol’ Farkus. (Ralphie’s younger brother Randy, best remembered for being rendered immobile by too many layers of winter clothing, also makes an appearance, with Ian Petrella reprising the role.)
“A Christmas Story Christmas” features the occasional quick clip from the first film, and the closing credits remind us of just how many scenes in the sequel mirror events from the original. If watching “A Christmas Story” is a part of your annual holiday ritual, you might want to make time to catch the sequel. It’ll make for a warm double helping of Christmas nostalgia.