Even after the annual marathons and kitschy merchandising, A Christmas Story is one of the rare holiday fixings that still earns its gauzy charms. By filtering events through little Ralphie Parker's grown-up reminiscence, the 1983 movie evokes the romanticism often attached to childhood memories. It's all a bit of a fantasy, if only because what sticks in Ralphie's mind when he recalls his Yuletide quest for a BB gun is so heightened. The low stakes generate madcap antics most meaningful to a child, or an adult convinced he remembers his childhood in vivid detail.
Since Hollywood can't let a good thing go, Ralphie Parker is back. A Christmas Story Christmas, premiering Nov. 17 on HBO Max, checks in on a Ralphie who has replaced unwanted bunny jumpsuits with unwanted gray hairs. The sequel treads familiar ground, but instead of the reflective narration that gave the original its wink, the new movie features Ralphie chronicling his life in present tense. This is no longer a tale of kid-sized dreams. A Christmas Story Christmas tries to maintain a playful tone, but what results is a drab reminder that adults experience the world in much starker terms than children.
Peter Billingsley, who conceptualized the new movie with writer Nick Schenk (Gran Torino), still has the awestruck gaze and cherubic cheeks to pull off Ralphie, now a father of two in 1973. Ralphie recently left his job to become a novelist, leaving the family strapped for cash as he toils away at an unpublishable sci-fi tome called Neptune's Oblivion. As if that weren't traumatizing enough for his supportive wife (Erinn Hayes), Ralphie's mother (a batty Julie Hagerty) phones right before Christmas to inform him that his old man has died. They load up the car to return to the Chicago suburb where Ralphie nearly shot his eye out all those years ago.
From there, A Christmas Story Christmas strikes an odd tonal balance. Death and regret loom on the periphery, but the movie is too committed to recounting its predecessor's greatest hits to acknowledge such weightiness with any credibility. This turkey has no meat on its bones, so Billingsley, Schenk, and director Clay Kaytis (The Christmas Chronicles) juice it up with a dose of reality that goes nowhere. It's a movie about a parent wanting to execute a perfect holiday despite familial loss, which isn't much of a plot if no one actually contends with the loss.
A Christmas Story Christmas rambles along, reintroducing us to what came before: Flick (Scott Schwartz) and Schwartz (R.D. Robb), former schoolyard bully Scut Farkus (Zack Ward), "hillbilly" neighbors, the gleaming department store Higbee's, fickle fuses, triple-dog dares. (Thankfully, this one skips the Chinese stereotyping.) In substituting the original's comforting graininess for uninspired gloss, the callbacks seem artificial, shoved into the script like boxes checked on a to-do list. No character feels anything half as strong as the desperation Ralphie once showed for that BB gun, which hollows out the momentum.
Another recent sequel, Hocus Pocus 2, faced a similar dilemma. Lacking an organic reason to resurrect those beloved characters, the film injected a cheesy message about the power of sisterhood as a way to manufacture meaning. In a sense, A Christmas Story is to December what Hocus Pocus is to October. The 24-hour loop that TNT and TBS have aired since 1997 turned the former into one of the most canonized American films ever made, a bar few follow-ups can clear. At least Hocus Pocus 2 coasted on Bette Midler's charisma. A Christmas Story Christmas can't pinpoint anything as humorous as the disconnect between Ralphie's perspective and that of his parents, and none of the actors survive its forced whimsy. Even the narration, performed by Billingsley instead of the late humorist Jean Shepherd, lacks the original's sprightly urgency.
At what point do objectionable sequels like A Christmas Story Christmas, Hocus Pocus 2, and Halloween Ends deplete their brands? Hocus Pocus 2 had the most-watched streaming debut in history, but did viewers come away feeling fed? The traditions these movies inspire become a little less special when their present-day incarnations are so bland. Sure, it's just a harmless sequel, but A Christmas Story Christmas might leave you feeling like the adult Ralphie did in 1983, peering into the snow globe of your memories to recall a more idealized time.
Premieres: Thursday, Nov. 17 on HBO Max
Who's in it: Peter Billingsley, Julie Hagerty, Ian Petrella, Scott Schwartz, R.D. Robb, Zack Ward, Erinn Hayes
Who's behind it: Clay Kaytis (director, co-screenwriter), Nick Schenk (co-screenwriter), Peter Billingsley (story by)
For fans of: Not getting what you wanted for Christmas