The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special Review: Second Life Day

Despite considerable fan re-appraisal, and semi-revival by Disney in order to market Life Day products at the theme parks every winter, The Star Wars Holiday Special still can’t be called “good” with a straight face. It has moments, sure. And as ironic cheese, it’s far more blatantly a relic of the ’70s than the original movie. But the mixture of variety show format, contemporaneous pop music, and out-of-character Star Wars story beats just didn’t quite work for the Lucasfilm universe. These seemingly incongruous elements, however, make perfect sense for the Guardians of the Galaxy. And with them, James Gunn pulled off something remarkable. He’s effectively made a version of The Star Wars Holiday Special that’s actually, genuinely good.

That it feels effortless and light is particularly impressive when considering how interminable the Star Wars version was. To be fair, at 44 minutes, The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special runs considerably shorter. But it follows a similar script, with familiar characters attempting to get to a friend’s holiday celebration, two musical numbers and some pop-scored comedy bits, a special celebrity guest, and a flashback animated sequence that includes a fan-favorite bounty hunter. It also manages to advance the plot of the Guardians trilogy overall, with at least one big plot reveal, and one minor one. And that’s not including a joke involving Gobots.

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There’s not a whole lot more to the plot than what you know from the trailer. Sensing that Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is bummed out this Christmas time and needs cheering up, Mantis (Pom Klementieff) and Drax (Dave Bautista) set out to bring him Kevin Bacon (Kevin Bacon) as a present, having heard Quill’s synopses of his movies so many times that they assume he’s a great hero. Bacon, who’s maybe more freaked out than he should be given that this is the MCU and aliens are kind of a known thing now, doesn’t exactly jump at the chance to come to space with two literal-minded invaders who have no concept of personal boundaries.

Presumably it was a variant Bacon who starred in X-Men: First Class. These multiverses can get complicated.

The story primarily belongs to Mantis, giving her new depth and defraying criticisms that her character in the second film embodied negative Asian stereotypes. She makes mistakes here, but is in charge and has agency. She even frequently disciplines Drax, who now better understands jokes but maintains a mean-spirited sense of humor. However, it’s not entirely clear how well-known the Guardians are on Earth at this point. Fans take pictures with them, but in situations that they could be mistaken for cosplayers.

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Bautista is clearly enjoying the deadpan as usual, as Klementieff gets to be the super-protagonist for once and makes the most of it. Chris Pratt’s Quill feels a touch inconsistent, with some major mugging at first, and then a reversion to form as he gets steadily more annoyed by his team’s lack of compunction with kidnapping. Groot now looks like a weird, ‘roided-up manbaby, with a body like a wooden He-Man figure and the head of a scaled-up Baby Groot. Kraglin, played again by the director’s brother Sean Gunn, remains prominent, and gets to explain the special’s emotional through-line.

But we also get our first listen to Maria Bakalova as the voice of Cosmo, and it’s a good one. Equal parts cute and indignant, she’s a better match than anyone but James Gunn might have imagined. More of her in Vol. 3 will be welcome. Zoe Saldana, last seen as variant Gamora, does not show up.

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As for the music, The Old 97s appear as an alien band, performing by themselves and with a special guest. Per Guardians norms, however, the rest of the soundtrack plays like James Gunn’s personal holiday mixtape, with Christmas-themed tunes from the Smashing Pumpkins, Fountains of Wayne, and — of course! — The Pogues with Kirsty MacColl. Fear not, this is Disney, and they cut that last one off before it gets to the bad word.

It takes hard work to make something feel this effortless, but in integrating retro animation, songs, lore exposition dumps, holiday theming, and a mirrored structure of the Star Wars Holiday Special,  Gunn again proves himself a master of repurposing pop culture he grew up with into something that works on its own terms. Due to its specific place in the MCU continuity, this special may not feel truly timeless to all, but it’s a strictly fun side mission that others will gladly revisit year after year.

Grade: 4.5/5

The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special debuts on Friday, November 25 on Disney+.

Recommended Reading: Guardians of the Galaxy by Donny Cates Vol. 1: The Final Gauntlet

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