It’s Christmas time, and Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is depressed. Besides mourning the loss of Gamora, he has nobody to celebrate the holiday with. To cheer him up, Mantis (Pom Klementieff) convinces Drax (Dave Bautista) to travel to Earth to get Quill a special gift: the “legendary hero” Kevin Bacon (playing himself). Wacky hijinks and treacly orchestral music ensue in The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special.
The only thing that sets off warning bells for me as much as “holiday special” attached to a franchise property is the idea of an artist releasing a holiday album. In most cases, these are things that are content first and art second, released to capitalize on the most consumption-heavy season of the year. Well-meaning filler at best, lazy cash grabs at worst. Which is not to say that a holiday-themed entry in a franchise or artist’s discography can’t be enjoyable or well done, but it’s often difficult to rise above the jingle bell-strewn landscape. For instance, I don’t consider myself a Mariah Carey fan, but she has my absolute respect for being one of the only artists in the past few decades to create a legitimate and permanent entry to the pop Christmas canon.
In that spirit, it actually pains me a little to consider the Guardians Holiday Special to be possibly the most inessential thing to ever be added to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A disposable, occasionally charming one-off special that tries very hard to be something unique but ends up exposing some of the flaws of the Guardians sub-franchise in the process and blunts the Guardians usual studio-approved mayhem in service to forced holiday sentiment. I’m not mad…just disappointed.
Things start off rocky right off the bat with an animated flashback to Quill’s first Christmas after being abducted by Yondu and the Ravagers. Rendered in a rough, unrefined rotoscoping style that comes off as a poor (albeit likely intentionally so) imitation of Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings, it’s unpleasant to look at. We then transition to live-action, where multiple characters take turns dumping “as you know…” exposition on us, including throwing in bits of lore that made me pause the special to look things up. As someone who’s seen about 99% of everything the MCU’s put out, I kept asking myself “Wait…when did THAT happen?” One of the biggest reveals was apparently meant for the second Guardians movie but was cut out. However, it’s introduced here as if we should have already known about it.
Things don’t get any smoother from there. The pacing is choppy, and the small plot that’s there doesn’t have a ton of support but does have a ton of padding. I kept wondering why this wasn’t a 10-minute web short. The usual cheekiness and fun that James Gunn brings to the Guardians films is blunted here, crudely shoved into a PG-friendly mold that ends up flanderizing the characters, giving the whole thing a rushed, off-brand vibe that just doesn’t quite work.
Granted, some of this might be the point. Gunn purposefully invokes comparisons to the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, whose colossal ineptitude has passed into pop culture legend. Groot’s new design, for instance, looks very much like a man in a suit, which is likely a reference to the people in wookie suits from the Star Wars special. And that’s cute, but Gunn doesn’t lay hard enough into the cheesy, desperate vibe that made the Star Wars special so memorable. He’s clearly trying to strike a balance between making a genuine holiday special and a satire of the same, and it doesn’t always work. The Guardians special is most enjoyable when Gunn leans on the comedy, less so when he leans on the emotional end.
Part of the special’s issue is its focus on Mantis and Drax, two characters I’ve enjoyed in other films and especially when they share scenes together. To be fair to Pom Klementieff and Dave Bautista, none of my issues stem from their performances. Both are dedicated and enjoyable, and both clearly love playing the characters. Gunn’s script for them, however, lays bare why both aren’t lead characters. They come off as parodies of themselves, and the one-note, occasionally two-note personalities displayed here make for poor protagonists. They wear out their welcome pretty quickly through absolutely no fault of the actors. However, it is nice to see Mantis get to be a more active character, even engaging in some pretty impressive melee and parkour moments during the special’s big action sequence.
Kevin Bacon playing himself seems like a great idea on paper but in practice doesn’t always pay off. Bacon seems game for whatever’s going on but also doesn’t feel like he has a lot of investment here. Chris Pratt comes off quite the same, his performance seemingly driven by contractual obligation. Even though the plot focuses around cheering Quill up, he has remarkably little screen time. It’s hard enough fitting all the Guardians into a two-hour movie, never mind a 44-minute special; Karen Gillan is given third billing, but Nebula has maybe 50 seconds on screen total and maybe only two lines.
There’s nothing egregiously wrong with The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special, but there’s also little to recommend it. While it tries to tie itself into the Guardians’ arc in the MCU by anchoring tiny bits of lore through the narrative, in the end it’s mostly filler. It endearingly tries its best to create something crazy and kooky, aiming hard for a spot in the hall of perennial alternatve holiday specials but doesn’t quite make it. Well, at least nobody’s singing about Life Day.
FBOTU Score: 5 out of 10 / C
The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special can be streamed exclusively on Disney+.