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'Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special' Review: A Short Shot of Festive Fun

Marvel and James Gunn unwrap this Disney Plus mini-film starring Chris Pratt, Dave Bautista, Pom Klementieff and a kidnapped Kevin Bacon.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
3 min read
Cheerful alien Mantis grins in a Christmas outfit in the Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special

Pom Klementieff lights up the Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special.

Jessica Miglio/Marvel

Marvel's special presentations are a great idea. This new strand of occasional, self-contained mini-films can deliver a concentrated hit of Marvel fun without requiring a trip to a theater or the commitment of a lengthy TV series. 

The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special, now on Disney Plus, is a perfect fit for this bite-size format as you settle down for some light, family-friendly, superpowered and silly Thanksgiving viewing.

The 42-minute Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special began streaming on Black Friday. How did it come together? The gang was all there anyway, as Chris Pratt and chums had already gathered to film Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, which will hit theaters next summer. So writer and director James Gunn wrapped in a fun, festive plot for the space adventurers, starring Pratt, Dave Bautista, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Sean Gunn and Michael Rooker.

This and Volume 3 serve as Gunn's Marvel swansong, as he's now been installed as supreme leader (or co-leader) of rival DC and its chaotic attempts to translate comics to the big screen. 

Even in this self-contained standalone format, Gunn's style suits the small screen. As in his surprisingly great DC series Peacemaker, when not having to hang a whole movie on action and spectacle, Gunn loosens up the MCU with this more character-driven shaggy dog story. Like Peacemaker, the GotG Holiday Special is powered by many of Gunn's signature traits: comic riffing stretched to absurd lengths, cool music and bursts of ludicrous violence framed by genuinely touching emotion. 

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The story follows Mantis and Drax on a quest to find the perfect Christmas gift for fellow Guardian Peter Quill. They reason that their '80s-obsessed pal would love to meet/own much-loved movie star Kevin Bacon, so they head to Hollywood for a spot of Christmas-y kidnapping. Festive chaos ensues.

The double act between these two provides a lot of comic energy in the GotG movies, and a lot will depend on how funny you find their naive misunderstandings of Earth customs. But it's hard to resist Pom Klementieff's good-hearted Mantis and Dave Bautista's gruff Drax. (You can also see the burly Bautista flexing his comedic muscles in theaters this week in Knives Out sequel Glass Onion.) 

Like Marvel's previous seasonal special -- the delightful Halloween horror Werewolf by Night -- this new mini-film mashes up Marvel heroes with genre fun. Gunn's pop culture blender smashes together a clip of 1964 B-movie Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, various aliens mangling Earth customs in tinsel-wrapped Tinseltown and even an amusingly old-school animated interlude. On the soundtrack of alt-Xmas bangers you get The Pogues (obviously), Julian Casablancas, Smashing Pumpkins, Hanoi Rocks (for any Peacemaker fans), Low, Little Jackie and -- of course -- The Old 97s, Kevin Bacon's band.

For fans there are also a few MCU Easter eggs (or should that be stocking stuffers?) including another nod to Kumail Nanjiani's character Kingo, a movie star in the MCU who was also namechecked in Ms. Marvel and She-Hulk. (Seriously, is Kingo the only thing people remember from Eternals?)

Clocking in at less than an hour and topping you up with some winning silliness, the Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special is just the right amount of Marvel fun. Long may these special presentations continue. Hell, imagine if Hawkeye had been this short!

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