Every family has their holiday traditions. Christmas is probably the king of family traditions. We all have our favorite Christmas songs and our favorite foods and methods of celebrating. A part of that has long been the Christmas movie. I’m talking about those films that somehow represent the spirit of the time of year, and not merely movies that take place during Christmas time. Yeah, John McClain, I’m talking about you. For me it’s been A Christmas Story since its release in 1983. There are others high on the list for me. The Man Who Invented Christmas and It’s A Wonderful Life along with almost every version of the Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol all have a special place in my heart. But none of them come close to Ralphie’s quest for a Red Ryder air rifle. Jean Shepherd’s In God We Trust All Others Pay Cash is as classic a slice of Americana as Norman Rockwell paintings or summer picnics and fireworks. The tale told in A Christmas Story is only a small part of that book, but it’s just Christmas to me and always shall be.
It’s 1973, and the boy who wanted that Red Ryder air rifle has grown with children of his own. It’s been a big year for the adult Ralphie (Billingsly) who has been given a year by his wife Sandy (Hayes) to quit his job and write that great American novel. As Christmas approaches, his year is nearly up. If he can get the novel picked up before the year ends, he can keep writing. If not, it’s back to the salt mines he goes. What he’s written is a too-long science fiction nightmare, and he’s on his final publisher. He remains the same Ralphie who once brought his teacher a huge fruit basket to bribe her to reward his theme with a good grade and hopefully align herself in the pro-air-rifle brigade. This time it’s premium bottles of booze, but the results haven’t changed. Ralphie has been foiled again, and time is running out. It sure seems like the more things change, the more they stay the same.
The new Parker family includes two young children. There’s Mark (Drosche) and Julie (Layne). They are planning to be visited by more than Santa Claus. The grandparents are coming to town to celebrate Christmas with them. Everyone is so excited until Ralphie gets a tragic call. His father, once played by the Night Stalker himself, Darren McGavin, has passed away. So now the new Parkers are headed back to his old home town to help out his mother, this time played by Julie Hagerty, who doesn’t want the sadness to ruin the holiday, because as we all know that’s not how the Old Man would have wanted it. She puts Ralphie in charge of making this the best Christmas ever. No pressure … right!
Ralph, because he’s not really Ralphie anymore, right? Ralph looks toward his old friends for help. The once-young boy actors return to their original roles. Flick, played by Scot Schwartz, now owns the local bar. Schwartz, reprised by R.D. Robb, is the local Norm from Cheers and has run up a huge tab at the bar. Scut Farkus, the guy with the yellow eyes, although not really, the local bully is now the town’s sheriff and still played by Zack Ward. We find he credits Ralph’s beating from the first film for turning his life around in a scary scene where Farkus is taking Ralph on what he fears is a dead-end ride. So Ralph has a lot on his mind. He’s charged with saving Christmas. He’s dealing with the death of his beloved father and his writing career coming to an end. But he ,and we hit a lot of familiar beats.
Higbees Department Store still puts on the big toy display, and Santa and his elves still reign atop a huge indoor mountain with that wonderful red slide exit. This time it’s his kids who make the visit while Ralph and Sandy try to hit everything on their Christmas list and stay within budget. Even then all hope appears lost when someone steals the gifts and Ralph is preparing to return to the drudgery of a job once again. But Christmas is magical for this family, and a little bit of that 1983 magic is still found in the corners and alleyways of a small town at Christmas.
There are times when it’s obvious they are trying too hard to hit all of the expected beats. Those moments can at times be cringe-worthy. But seeing the old cast grown up, they still have some chemistry after 40 years, and it truly feels like these guys have been pals all of their lives. The film manages to capture the heart of the characters and story. They do a wonderful job of paying homage to McGavin, whose presence can be felt throughout, but only appears as a framed picture on the wall. There are a couple of surprises, and an ending that, while predictable, brings the story full circle to the 1983 film in an organic way that just feels right. Those imaginative fantasies that Ralphie had 40 years ago are still there, and just as corny, but sometimes just as magical. You really can’t go home again, and that’s truly Ralph’s journey and discovery. But you can make a new home built of some of the precious bricks of the old one, and that’s the true strength of this film. At it’s core, it’s authentic, and hits more often than it misses.
There have been follow-ups to the film, but none of them have included the original cast or had any real link to the original film. They mostly derived from other stories in the Jean Shepherd book. It has taken 40 years for the film to finally produce something that is worthy of that movie. It’s not as good, not by a long shot. It’s never going to replace our Christmas Eve running of A Christmas Story, but it might get to ride along every couple of years or so. You can pick it up on DVD or stream it on the Warner Brothers streaming platform. And if you’re a fan of what came before, there might just be enough of that old magic to touch your heart. Give it a try. “I double dog dare you.”