Star Wars exists in the Marvel Cinematic Universe just like it exists in ours: As a commercial franchise of popular movies and LEGO toys.
But the latest entry in the MCU, the Christmas-themed The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special, contains one abstract homage to one of the most infamous Star Wars productions of all time: The Star Wars Holiday Special.
While the homage isn’t immediately obvious, previous insight from writer and director James Gunn, who’s spoken of his admiration for the Holiday Special, explains why one of his special’s most pivotal scenes pivots to rotoscope animation. Minor spoilers ahead.
The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special, streaming now on Disney+, is exactly what it says on the tin. Set after Thor: Love and Thunder, Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) is moping about the loss of Gamora. This inspires Mantis (Pom Klementieff) and Drax (Dave Bautista) to head to Earth and kidnap Kevin Bacon to cheer up Star-Lord for the holidays.
The special contains a few flashbacks to Star-Lord’s adolescence, when he was still a teenager on the Ravager ship ruled by his “adopted” father, Yondu (Michael Rooker). The memories are mostly sour, with Yondu being a Grinch who demands Star-Lord and Kraglin (Sean Gunn) take down their Christmas decorations. But as the special later reveals, there is some semblance of sweetness to be found in the complicated Yondu as he gifts Star-Lord his now beloved blasters.
The flashbacks are illustrated using rotoscope techniques, a first for the MCU. Rotoscoping, in which animators “trace” over live-action footage, was popular throughout the 20th century but is practically extinct in the digital age (at least outside of Richard Linklater’s filmography).
It’s an expensive and time-consuming process, but the staple of old Ralph Bakshi films like The Lord of the Rings (1978) and the cult bomb Cool World (1992) lives on with The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special. On November 26, Gunn tweeted an acknowledgment of Bakshi’s influence: “Ralph Bakshi ftw.”
But Bakshi isn’t the only element of nostalgia in The Holiday Special, as the mere use of animation in a live-action sci-fi Christmas comedy musical pays homage to another of Gunn’s childhood favorites.
In 1978, the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special aired on CBS. Set between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, the special follows the characters of Star Wars celebrating “Life Day.” While Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford appear, it inexplicably focuses on a family of Wookies who encounter a carousel of celebrity cameos like Bea Arthur, Harvey Korman, and Diahann Carroll.
You can almost see the skeleton of The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special in the Star Wars Holiday Special. From its ensemble of aliens learning the meaning of the holidays, to the musical performances, to its own celebrity guest in Kevin Bacon, the MCU now has its own Star Wars Holiday Special (except watchable). But another major component of the Star Wars Holiday Special was its animated segment.
“The Faithful Wookie,” a nine-minute short, is an in-universe flashback to when the heroes of Star Wars meet Boba Fett (voiced by Don Francks) for the first time. The fact that the beloved character debuted here has made the Star Wars Holiday Special more than just a funny footnote, and “The Faithful Wookie” is available to stream by itself on Disney+.
James Gunn has mentioned his fondness for The Star Wars Holiday Special, both in recent interviews with The Hollywood Reporter and in tweets dating back to 2020, when the Guardians special was first announced. In a now-deleted tweet, Gunn acknowledged The Star Wars Holiday Special as something he “unironically loved.” It seems safe to assume that Gunn’s decision to animate a sequence is a nod to the infamous special.
The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special is a blast, a tight package of saccharine holiday sweetness that feels like a parting gift from James Gunn as he prepares to exit the MCU and oversee the DCU. But with its deep roots in Gunn’s childhood nostalgia, the movie’s sentimental undertones make its seasonal spirit all the more special.
The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special is streaming now on Disney+.