Filmmaker James Gunn’s modus operandi has been mostly the same but especially pronounced over the last few years. He’s always been attracted to misfits, outsiders, and the forgotten, and that’s always yielded lots of great, irreverent humor, championing the losers of various universes and watching them succeed by supporting one another. But pushing it even further lately with “The Suicide Squad” and this new “The Guardians Of The Galaxy Holiday Special,” he’s genuinely considered, with great empathy, the emotional costs of being left behind in a more meaningful and even touching way.
Now, sure, don’t get it twisted ‘The Guardians Of The Galaxy’ films can feel slight, goofy, silly, etc., and ‘The Holiday Special’ has this quality too. But Gunn really has a patented—and disarming, even—knack for threading the needle of the absurd and the profane with something that eventually transforms into something surprisingly moving. It’s the James Gunn, m.o., it works, it still doesn’t feel tired, and it really teases that something very emotional is in store for the final ‘Guardians Of The Galaxy’ volume.
Leaving people behind—often against their own will— is undoubtedly part of the ‘Guardians’ DNA at its core. Of course, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) was kidnapped from his parents on Earth and was then inculcated into a new family by force, the Ravagers, led by Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker), and the special uses that as a launching pad to reexplore old wounds. Moping around because he misses Gamora (Zoe Saldana, not seen in the special), Quill is a bit crestfallen because she’s absent during Christmas.
Of course, the concept of Christmas is foreign and strange to the Guardians, so in the opening flashback scene— told in animated form— Kraglin Obfonteri (Sean Gunn) tells the team a story about the time he tried to cheer up a young Quill with Christmas cheer as a boy. Still, the angry and sentiment-opposed Yondu wasn’t having it.
Inspired by the story and a way to cheer Quill up, Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) hatch a plan: travel to Earth and find the one thing they believe will bring Quill joy, the actor Kevin Bacon. Now, for this to make sense, you have to know the history of the ‘Guardians’ films and all their Marvel appearances, but Bacon, Quill’s hero when he was a boy, has been a theme threaded throughout the history of these films (the idea always was, clinging to the past, no one was cooler than Kevin Bacon).
So, off they go, and in doing so, Gunn seems to achieve two things—one, checking off the box of doing a Drax/Mantis spin-off show, something he talked about in the past—and two, writing into the special, a clever way to avoid big-budget VFX, as Groot (Vin Diesel) and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and all the ‘Guardians’ space and sci-fi milieu are mostly left on the periphery (Maria Bakalova briefly “appears” voicing the new character Cosmo the Spacedog).
From there, it’s pretty obvious what happens, hijinx and hilarity as Mantis and Drax essentially abduct Kevin Bacon from his Hollywood home (Mantis’ emotional manipulation powers coming in handy), battle with the LAPD and then take the Guardians back to Nowhere, their new home (the planet, formerly home to the Collector that Peter Quill says they bought from him).
Filled to the brim with Christmas music—Old ’97s, The Smashing Pumpkins, Low, Julian Casablancas— and tons of the power pop that Gunn loves so much and has defined many of the “Guardians’ films (Hanoi Rocks, Fountains Of Wayne), ‘The Holiday Special’ is in that sense, very much a piece of the ‘Guardians’ volumes. It’s irreverent and vulgar—Lord, Drax’s foolishness yields such great laughs, and the running joke of all actors being idiots is hilarious— and just when you think that’s all it is, it swings to be its big emotional climax where Kevin Bacon not only helps Peter Quill regain the spirit of Christmas, but learns just how much he meant to Quill as a boy, and how the magic of movies and his profession gave gift such great joys.
At 45 minutes long, ‘The Holiday Special’ isn’t going to change anyone’s life, and it does feel a little disposable initially. But it is ultimately a lovely, very moving little bauble that will melt any cynics’ cold heart. Gunn inherently understands what makes Christmas movies unique and ties that thematically to the ideas of loneliness, loss, and found family togetherness that has been so endemic to the ‘Guardians’ films. If you like your Christmas specials with laughter and delight but, ultimately, an understanding of the innate bittersweetness and melancholy that can live beneath the merriment, this is likely the special for you. And the possibilities of what Gunn seems like he’s going to aim for in his final ‘Guardians’ installment, something potentially very poignant, sad, and special. [B]
“The Guardians Of The Galaxy Holiday Special” debuts on Disney+ on Friday, November 25.