Christmas movies are a special genre in the film industry and the Christmas special has even more distinct characteristics as a sub-genre of the Christmas movie. As a genre, a good Christmas movie will have a positive ending and general holiday cheer, but the Christmas special goes further than that in many ways. Christmas movies as a whole have many options in the way they manifest their storytelling. For instance, a good Christmas movie could be a despair-filled drama of a suicidal Jimmy Stewart as he takes us through the human experience of pain and redemption and go on to become one of the top 100 movies of all time. A good Christmas movie could also feature a Billy Bob Thorton as a sex-addicted alcoholic who bangs girls in the dressing room, does drugs, and ends the movie with a kick to the nuts and a middle finger.
Good Christmas specials however, are a different breed, and in some ways a much trickier line to toe. There are a couple key elements that makes a good Christmas special, which are:
1. A central theme aka moral lesson the film centers the plot development around.
2. A more wholesome tone and execution of the storytelling. For instance, both Guardian films are filled with cartoonish but still wanton violence and feature many, many creatures being murdered on screen. Not to mention the aggressive/foul language and sexual innuendo. None of that is allowed in a Christmas special.
3. In the end it all boils it down to one thing: A good Christmas special wears its heart on its sleeve and is proud of it.
The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special excels at all of the above and brings a little extra satirical spice to it in a way that director James Gunn brings to all his films. Gunn manages to weave in all the elements of a message and blatant love of Christmas in a more wholesome package. Also, any Christmas special with Kevin Bacon in it as the Macguffin has to be worth a watch.
First off, to wear its love of Christmas on the film’s heart, we are treated with a three-piece alien band performing a full-on musical number complete with sweeping camera movements with hilarious lyrics about Santa being a burglar and shooting missiles at the toes of the naughty. Throughout the number we see some brief shots of teenage Groot (who is significantly more buff) and Peter Quill providing counter points. Actually, one of the weaker points of the film is that we don’t see much of anyone besides Mantis and Drax for the majority of the film, presumably to make a film like this fit the schedule of all the characters.
Let me repeat this only once: any Christmas special featuring Kevin Bacon as the Macguffin of the film is one you need to check out. It adds a hilarious meta element to the film that brings a touch of the absurd that allows for a lot of jokes to be made. This is exemplified when both Mantis and Drax are horrified to realize that Kevin Bacon is actually just an actor, not actually the character in the films that Peter idolized as a child. They shout at Bacon that actors are repugnant and make vomiting noises and nothing could be more delightful.
When they ask Bacon what it was like saving a town by the power of dancing, and he says that it was the character who did it, I believe Gunn is attempting to make the point to fans who do not know how to decipher a film from reality.
Cinematically, the presentation for the film is paired down with a lower budget and less set pieces. But it’s not just the lack of action or CGI that makes this feel a mix between a film and a TV special. The problems are glaringly present when Drax and Mantis visit LA and we are treated to a montage of them hamming it up around town. The footage is washed out and lacking the control compared to the stage in which their alien town is built. The daytime footage in LA feels more like the crew from the Office went out to shoot some footage and it breaks the fantasy a bit, visually. But it also does serve to remind us that the Marvel Universe does reside within our reality so it kind of works.
But none of that matters for a Christmas special. The only thing that matters is, can you bring the feels? And the answer is a resounding yes. This moment hits home when Peter is brought out into the town square with thousands of Christmas lights all around. The look of wonder and excitement on his face plus a sweeping 360 camera movement sells the moment, because who doesn’t love waking up to be surrounded by Christmas lights?
Holiday specials are also a big part of the Marvel Comics history and The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special channels a lot of that vibe. The film tries and succeeds in bringing a lot of unabashed heart and feel-good speeches in the end that will certainly live on as the best Christmas special Marvel has ever produced. Although technically it is the first on the MCU, so I would love to see how other properties tackle the sub-genre.