‘The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special’ Review: Your Fun-Loving Cousins Are Here to Spread Christmas Cheer

Drax and Mantis take center stage in this wild and sweet James Gunn-directed prelude to “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3”

Marvel Studios/Disney+

If the “Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special” were a graphic novel, it would be an “annual,” a long-form comic book featuring a self-contained story that often exists outside of canon with a set of characters with which most fans are already familiar. In this case, it’s a slapstick comedy full of physical humor, musical numbers and the geekiest tribute to Kevin Bacon this side of the Bifrost.

James Gunn wrote and directed the 42-minute special and not only wrapped filming “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” (the special was shot during “Vol. 3” production) for Marvel but is now co-head of the Warner Bros. new DC Films. Adept at taking B-level comic book characters and turning them into franchise hits, Gunn does a lot with a little here with Marvel’s first-ever holiday special.

The story takes place after the events of “Thor: Love and Thunder” but before “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3”, and we find the cosmic crew of Star-Lord aka Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Drax (Dave Bautista), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Groot (Vin Diesel) and Kraglin (Sean Gunn) have created a new base of operations on Knowhere, a space station built inside of the decapitated head of a Celestial and the former residence of The Collector.

Kraglin now sports the same Yaka Arrow controller on his head that the Kree Ravager Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker) wore before his death in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”. In a few rotoscoped animated scenes reminiscent of Ralph Bakshi, Rooker makes a return appearance in the special as he ruins Christmas for a young Quill who is trying to explain the meaning of the Christian Earth-based tradition.

Present-day Quill is a little depressed. Is it because the love of his life, Gamora is gone, or because the man who raised him was a complete Scrooge about Christmas? Even an impromptu musical number from the new residents of Knowhere is not enough to lift his spirits. That’s when Mantis and Drax take it upon themselves to cheer him up by embarking on a mission to locate Quill’s 1980s childhood hero on Earth: Kevin Bacon.

As usual, the alien pair have misunderstood American Earth customs and have mistaken the actor Kevin Bacon (who plays himself) for an actual hero rather than an onscreen one. A bonkers chase through the streets of Hollywood, complete with a drunken club scene, ensues to find the “Footloose” actor and get him back to the ship in time for the holidays.

The “Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special” is one part buddy comedy, one part musical, and is so full of easter eggs that MCU fans will be rewatching it all holiday season. Mantis and Drax have adorable sibling chemistry as they step out of their supporting roles to be the special’s focus. Balancing humor with moments of emotion and gravitas is Gunn’s specialty, and although the characters go through a lot in less than an hour, nothing feels rushed or overly sentimental. Pom Klementieff demonstrates this perfectly in a stand-out performance full of complex emotions under prosthetics, which is no easy feat.

Although the special marks the conclusion of Marvel’s Phase 4, it ends on a lighter note than its predecessors. Where most of Phase Four has focused on the multiverse following the consequences of “Avengers: Endgame,” the “Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special” only refers to the rest of the MCU tangentially. Scenes between Rocket and Cosmo (voiced by Maria Bakalova), brawny college-aged Groot, and a confirmed fan theory about Mantis and Star-Lord are what MCU fans will rave about.

That being said, aside from Kevin Bacon being hilariously himself, some of the antics might be hard to follow for those not well versed in Marvel lore. But the short run time, the memorable musical numbers, and the number of action scenes make it a fun holiday watch, even if you don’t know the difference between a Kree and a Celestial.

If the character of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are a big extended family, then the Guardians of the Galaxy are the fun cousins that always show up late with a half-empty bottle of liquor as a gift and a few extra people in tow — but they’re just so fun and kind-hearted that you let them all in any way.

“The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special” has that exact same sentiment. Does the MCU need it? Probably not. Is it a delight to watch? Absolutely.

We just want to know how Nebula got a hold of Bucky’s old arm.

“The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special” is now streaming on Disney+.