For many of us, Bob Clark’s ‘A Christmas Story’ holds a special, perennial place in our hearts. The movie’s been featured in ceaseless marathons over the past twenty years, serving as a staple of the genuine, American Christmas. The film’s narrator – Jean Shepherd, who wrote the short stories the movie is based on – tells us a tale from the perspective of Ralphie, a kid growing up in pre-war Indiana who yearns for BB guns and good grades. The movie can be sealed and hung on a wall; it’s a smart, tremendous work that would probably be the late Bob Clark’s best film, long before Super Babies sullied his reputation.
Now, nearly thirty years after that film’s debut, Warner Bros. decided that they should make a direct-to-video sequel because there are obviously a few more pennies to be wrung out of America’s collective nostalgia for Ralphie and the Parker family.
Featuring an entirely new cast, this second flick takes place several years after the original as Ralphie’s on the cusp of sixteen and learning to drive. The Red Rider BB gun he once pined for now swapped for a beat up old emerald Mercury, he gets into an accident right off the car’s lot and has until Christmas (or some other arbitrary deadline, I can’t remember) to repay the sales manager lest he be hauled off to the slammer. An older Ralphie still narrates (sounding similar to Jean Shepherd’s original intonation), which is coincidental considering Daniel Stern plays the cantankerous Old Man. Stern, like the others, doesn’t really play a character so much as he tries far too hard to emulate his predecessor, the wonderful Darren McGavin. In fact, the whole movie is filled with less-than-charming recalls of the original, from the slightly fuzzy photography and Ralphie’s daytime fantasies to the ridiculous holiday costume from Aunt Clara. The Old Man even gets another infamous leg lamp in a scene lifted almost note for note from the original. Ralphie lets out an ‘Oh, Fudge’ scream. So on.
While the original dropped a few subplots in its largely rambling narrative, the sequel bounces between the family members, as if conducting some wonderful service by exposing their humble, suburban needs. Eventually, the Old Man has had enough of it with that frickin’-frackin’ furnace, a point made repeatedly, as if a kind of funny running gag, and we understand that he’s a penny pinching sonuvabitch who won’t pay forty cents a pound for a turkey for Christmas dinner. Dissatisfied with the pains of capitalism (I suppose?), he heads out to the lake for some ice fishing in an effort that mirrors Homer Simpson’s best attempt to find an all-you-can eat seafood buffet. The beauty of the original film was that it always took place from Ralphie’s perspective, which isn’t to say it couldn’t be told any other way, but it created a cohesive experience in which everything presented confuses and amazes the innocent Ralphie as much as it does the viewer. Here, it just detaches you from everything. While the Old Man is busy being cheap, Ralphie and his childhood pals Flick and Schwartz take up odd jobs in the Higbee’s department store, being reduced to bumbling idiots in the process. Somehow, the writers of this film mistook Ralphie’s childish naivety in the first film for stupidity because the trio partake of slapstick “comedy” so harrowing that a conclusive fight with large, decorative candy canes makes Dr. Strangelove’s deleted piefight finale look like art.
When you’re not struggling with A Christmas Story 2’s cheap TV-film appearance, crappy, derivative plot, and silly characters, there’s a thin layer of genuine joy when witnessing how hard someone had to work to replicate a 40s-era Midwest. Rita Hayworth gets “30% naked” in a show that Flick sees, period cars appear everywhere, and the dress is spot on. Honestly, it looks like the production designer had a blast bringing the film to life and it’s a shame everyone else above the line only gave half an effort. The only thing this movie will accomplish this holiday is bring tears to anyone who finds this in their stockings. Best stick with the pink bunny suit, instead.