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The Guardians Of The Galaxy Holiday Special: The Best And Worst Things

If you'd told Marvel fans in 2007 that one of the biggest superhero movie franchises just a decade later would be "The Guardians of the Galaxy," a team that at the time hadn't been published in their own title for more than a decade (and whose final issue in 1995 had ironically been titled "Endgame"), they'd probably think you were nuts. And if you'd told them that it would come from the mind of James Gunn, the writer and director of the 2006 horror movie "Slither," they would know you're nuts. But tell them that Gunn would be producing a "Guardians of the Galaxy" Christmas special? They might call the cops.

But fast forward to 2022, and we find Gunn preparing to cap off a trilogy that represents one of Marvel's biggest successes with "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3" in May of 2023. As we wait, he's given us a special end-of-year treat in the form of the "Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special," released on Disney+, a new adventure for the outer space heroes that celebrates the Christmas season with action, adventure, music, and Kevin Bacon.

A delightfully festive yuletide romp, "The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special" is yet another triumph for Gunn and a fine addition to the MCU. But it's certainly not perfect, and now that we've had a chance to see it for ourselves, we've found the six best and six worst things about it.

Best: The animated segments

"The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special" was announced by Marvel Studios in 2020, with the triumphant return of writer-director James Gunn after a brief dismissal from the company. But while the filmmaker had likened the project to "The Star Wars Holiday Special," noting his great affection for the infamous 1978 TV movie that creator George Lucas has disavowed, few could have imagined at least one similarity they'd share. Because while it eschews the sillier interstitials, the "Guardians" special does feature a surprising animated opening segment that few could have seen coming.

A highlight of the episode, the animated short that kicks off the holiday special mimics classic 1970s rotoscoped animation, and sees the unexpected return of Micahel Rooker's Yondu in a flashback story. Voiced by Rooker, Yondu is seen on Christmas Day in a segment that gives us a brief glimpse into Peter Quill's childhood. The story explores his contentious relationship he had with his blue-skinned mentor, and his friendship with a younger Kraglin (Sean Gunn) too. But while Kraglin and Quill are attempting to celebrate the holiday, they are rebuffed by a cantankerous Yondu, who puts an unceremonious end to their festivities. 

Funny, fun, and poignant, it has all the hallmarks of a James Gunn story, and perfectly sets the stage for the emotional core of the adventure to come. It's also a pitch-perfect homage to '70s kids' specials, and that it hadn't been teased ahead of time makes it all the better.

Worst: Groot's weird new look

One of the most powerful moments in the first "Guardians of the Galaxy" film was the emotional death of Groot, the walking, semi-talking tree voiced by Vin Diesel. As teased in a post-credits scene, he'd return in the sequel as Baby Groot, a diminutive sprout of a tree, and as James Gunn explained on Twitter, he's an entirely new character and essentially the Son of Groot. After "Vol. 2" he'd be seen in "Avengers: Infinity War" as a "teenaged" Groot, and he continues his growth in "The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special," in which he appears to be a young adult.

Unfortunately, whether due to budget limitations, a shortened production time, or just a creative decision, the look of this new grown Groot leaves a little something to be desired. Though we're sure there was some CGI employed to bring him to life, the bulk of the effect look much more like this is a stunt man in a large foam suit. This is evident by Groot's broader frame, likely to allow the human performer inside to fit into the costume, but it also makes Groot a heftier, chunkier tree. 

While Groot plays only a small role in the special — another issue we have with this story — he just doesn't look all that convincing when he does appear. In its defense it's done as well as you could imagine for what appears to be a practical effect for the giant tree, but it just doesn't quite work.

Best: The Old '97s X-Mas songs

Marvel Studios has always found just the right music to incorporate into their films, with director James Gunn arguably the master of using the perfect song for every moment. But for this one it seems Gunn has commissioned an all-new tune written just for this special, and it couldn't be more perfect. But what makes it just so *chef's kiss* is that the song is performed by the band who wrote it, The Old '97s. In full alien makeup, the group plays to inhabitants of the space outpost Knowhere looking to impress their new patron Star-Lord, aka Peter Quill. 

Titled "I Don't Know What Christmas Is (But Christmastime is Here)," the song is a collection of musings from the alien band members about what they think the holiday is based solely on what little information they have. Hearing only third or fourth hand stories, they presume that Santa Claus has epic super powers and is a master burglar who wields a flamethrower and shoots missiles at your toes. A non-stop, joke-filled pop song that is much more than a celebratory ditty, it may suck up a few minutes of precious run time, but you won't be lamenting it. Did we also mention how catchy it is, ensuring you'll be singing it over and over even after the special is done?

The Old '97s also return to close out the special, this time to perform an existing tune from their 2018 Christmas album. With Kevin Bacon on the mic, it's another toe-tapping win.

Worst: Drax and Mantis on the town

In "Avengers: Endgame" the Guardians of the Galaxy reunited on Earth, with Star-Lord, Drax, and Mantis arriving via Dr. Strange's portals in to aid the Avengers in their battle against Thanos. Unfortunately, the team didn't stay on the planet long, setting out shortly thereafter with Thor in tow. Now, in "The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special," Drax and Mantis take a return trip to Terra in an effort to get their friend Peter Quill a Christmas present. Their first stop is Los Angeles, and their adventures through the city border a bit too much on slapstick farce.

Landing their ship behind the Hollywood sign, Drax and Mantis take a trip down the Hollywood Boulevard, across the walk of fame, and get mixed up in plenty of tourist nonsense. They go clubbing at night, and wind up too drunk and broke to buy a map to find the elusive hero Kevin Bacon. While there are some funny moments and a few great laughs, the sequence grows old quickly and at times feels like filler to get the special over a certain runtime.  We can't say for sure if the jokes were ad-libbed, but it does have an improvised feel. Plus, beyond one excellent "Go-Bots" gag, the episode revels in the silliness a little too long, milking the single joke of two real-life superheroes among a sea of costumed tourist traps one too many times.

Best: Kevin Bacon

A major plot point in the first "Guardians of the Galaxy" movie was Peter Quill's love of Kevin Bacon, particularly his role in the movie "Footloose." The iconic '80s classic even inspired the space outlaw in his confrontation with Ronan the Accuser to launch the dance-off that saved the galaxy. Mantis later references Bacon as a possible Avenger in "Avengers: Infinity War," and several other jokes have come at the expense of the legendary actor. 

But few could have imagined when "The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special" was first announced that Kevin Bacon would form the heart of the story, and that the actor himself would join in on the festivities in a starring role. Bacon turns in no mere cameo in this story, and in fact has more screen time than most of the Guardians. And he makes the most of it, too, delivering some of the show's funniest lines. He even gets a hilarious action scene when Drax and Mantis come to Earth to abduct him as a gift for Quill. 

Additionally, Bacon's performance as himself, thrown into the chaos of outer space adventure, is one for the record books. The renowned actor gets to be a part of a few heartfelt scenes, as well as a killer musical number in the show's finale.

Worst: Not enough Guardians

Considering the "Guardians of the Galaxy" in the title, representing one of Marvel's most popular super-teams and biggest big screen franchises, it's somewhat surprising that "The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special" is missing most of the title characters for much of its length. In fact, for a story that's ostensibly all about Peter Quill longing for both Gamora and the spirit of Christmas — and revolves around his friends' efforts to cheer him up — the special is shockingly low on Peter Quill, the leader of the team and the star of the franchise.

Don't get us wrong — when Quill does show up, his moments are used to maximum effect, and he gets some of the episode's most touching moments for sure. But with Gamora missing, and Nebula, Rocket, and Groot each getting just a scene or two (with barely more than a line of dialogue each) the special feels much less like "Guardians of the Galaxy" and more like the "The Christmas Adventures of Drax and Mantis."

Sure, it's nice to see Drax and Mantis get the spotlight, and the special is full of heart, humor, and holiday fun. But we can't help but wish we could have gotten more of the entire team in action, or at least more scenes of them all together. After all, the interplay between them and how their different personalities play off each other is one of the strengths of the "Guardians of the Galaxy" films, and that feels mostly missing from this mini installment.

Best: The perfect gifts

Forget the holiday ham, the big family dinner, and the bad sweater contests — we can all agree that giving gifts to friends and loved ones is a highlight of Christmas, and the same is true in "The Guardians of the Galaxy Christmas Special." It's about much more than the gift itself, of course, as a young Peter Quill makes sure to emphasize — for Yondu and the audience — that gifts are a way to express affection and appreciation. And the gifts given by the Guardians to each other express that perfectly, with Gunn brilliantly capturing the essence of each character in both giving and receiving.

Mantis gives the simplest and most obvious gift to Drax: Kevin Bacon's inflatable lawn elf that he had so coveted, and the joy he gets from it is infectious. Cosmo the space dog, like any good pet, delivers a dead rodent to Kraglin, while Peter Quill gives Groot a classic Game Boy, perfect for the tree who loves video games. Groot hands out gifts to all of his fellow Guardians too: a series of hand crafted dioramas depicting scenes from the holiday special. In a return to the animated opening, Yondu is shown in the past gifting a young Peter Quill his twin blasters, the same weapons he's used throughout his MCU adventures.

But the best gift comes from Nebula. In one of the special's biggest laugh-out-loud moments, Rocket is gifted Bucky's cybernetic arm, the one the raccoon had coveted in the finale of "Avengers: Infinity War" and had vowed to acquire some day.

Worst: It's just too short

Maybe we were asking for a bit too much here, and it might have been a lot to expect a full-blown movie out of "The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special," but we'll admit at just 41 minutes with credits, and two songs that fill a not-so-insignificant amount of time, what we're left with is more like a half-hour episode instead of the mini movie many were expecting. There's no denying that what we do get is great, and will leave audiences cheering in exaltation and weeping in joy at its sweeter moments, but for such a high-profile event special, it's extremely low on actual story.

Some could argue that Marvel Studios and James Gunn were smart to make the special relatively brief. Keeping the story moving and making it just a stocking stuff of a tale ensures that it doesn't overstay its welcome. Longer specials also run the risk of going overboard with schmaltz and becoming tacky with too much holiday cheer. But while a Christmas-themed installment doesn't necessarily have to be a full blown movie, it's nevertheless unfortunate that it's barely more than a half an hour of actual story.

So while it's definitely an enjoyable affair, those hoping for a major movie to sit down and watch with a group of friends this holiday season will no doubt be disappointed by the special's relatively breezy runtime.

Best: The spirit of Christmas

If there's any filmmaker perfect for a superhero Christmas special, it's James Gunn. The writer-director who was recently placed in charge of the entire DC movie universe, Gunn is famous for being more than just a maker of action movies. His scripts are known for a healthy dose of pathos and raw emotion that tugs on the heartstrings, filled with compelling characters whose relationships take center stage. Even the biggest blockbusters under his belt have mixed over-the-top action with tear-jerking drama. With the "Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special," Gunn pulls it off once more and captures the true spirit of Christmas as well as any Hallmark special.

From the heart-wrenching flashback showing a young Peter Quill being denied a Christmas celebration — setting up the emotional core of the story — to Drax and Mantis wanting to help their friend through a trying time, the special swims in sentimentality in all the right ways. And thanks to nuanced performances by everyone involved, most notably Sean Gunn as Kraglin, Pom Klementieff as Mantis,and Kevin Bacon as himself,  even the most subtle dialog is dripping with heart.

Of course, the special caps off with the most uplifting and inspiring message of family you could imagine. Because when Quill learns that Mantis is his sister, in a scene that won't leave a dry eye in the house, Quill reminds us that family is the best gift of all.

Worst: It doesn't advance the story

Perhaps we can chalk this one up to unrealistic hopes and dreams, but "The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special" isn't the semi-sequel many had been hoping for, even with its truncated runtime. When we last left the team in "Avengers: Endgame," Gamora was dead at the hands of Thanos, but a new variant of the green-skinned assassin had surfaced. Peter Quill was stunned by her arrival, and some fans on Reddit wondered if the holiday special might pick up that plot thread, with a festive story reuniting the former lovers in a tender Christmas tale.

But while do get a few new nuggets of information — namely that the outpost of Knowhere is now owned by the Guardians of the Galaxy — we don't get any direct follow-ups to the Guardians' story. We do learn that Peter is still searching for his lost love Gamora, and we get some nice nods to the events of "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2." Unfortunately, the larger story remains relatively untouched, and we never even get to see Quill's emotional return to his home planet, as many might have hoped.

On the one hand, avoiding this sort of continuation helps make the special a true standalone entry, and allows moviegoers to see "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3" without needing to catch up. On the other, it feels like a major missed opportunity to explore more of the fallout from "Endgame" that "Vol. 3" might not have time to cover.

Best: Cosmo the space dog

Teased in the first "Guardians of the Galaxy" movie way back in 2014, Cosmo is an Earth canine who was sent into outer space by the soviet space program. Eventually, the pup was picked up by none other than Tanaleer Tivan, aka the Collector, and became part of his museum on Knowhere. With the Guardians of the Galaxy taking over the space outpost from the Collector, Cosmo is now in their care, and the holiday special finally gives us our first quality time with the character, who first appeared in a 2008 issue of Marvel's "Nova" series.

A happy-go-lucky pup, Cosmo still wears her space suit, and still loves doggy treats. But she also talks, voiced by Maria Bakalova, the actress who portrayed the daughter of Sascha Baron Cohen's character in the "Borat" sequel in 2020. With no true master, she seems like she's developing quite a friendship with Rocket and Kraglin, and we're hoping this means she'll become an unofficial member of the Guardians of the Galaxy. Because while she gets a standout moment or two in the special, it would be great to see her again in "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3."

Worst: It feels too small

Despite being centered on a group of interstellar heroes, the scope of "The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special" is disappointingly small scale. The story uses just two sets, one of which — the outpost Knowhere — was likely constructed for the upcoming sequel. It's understandable if so, because it helps keeps costs down for a project that won't be pulling in any box office dollars. Still, its narrow scope makes the special feel quite small at times. Meanwhile, the lighting and cinematography sometimes feels far from the slick, highly-polished look of the films. There are even a few moments where it feels like you're watching actors on a soundstage, though it's hard to pinpoint exactly why.

Being a bonus holiday gift on Disney+, we can't complain about the special as a whole. It's well-written and is fun from start to finish, just what you'd expect from a James Gunn production. It's also a nice treat that we get a little adventure with our favorite space-faring friends to yuletide us over as we wait for "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3." But with so much that could have been done, it's hard not to wish it had been a bit more grand in scope, even with a short run time — more action, more locations, and more adventure. But as long as you keep your expectations in check, we have no doubt that fans will have a great time with it.