Imagine Garrison Keillor narrating a series of Norman Rockwell paintings and you'll have a very good idea of what My Summer Story is all about. Nostalgic and gently humorous, this sequel to 1983's A Christmas Story continues the adventures of Ralph Parker in the prepubescent universe of bullies, parents, best friends, and no girls. Like the first film, the '40s-set Summer is a collection of vignettes about the quest for the perfect toy here, a killer top that, not so incidentally, also show Ralph growing up.
But unlike the majority of sequels, Summer (which had a minuscule release last September as It Runs in the Family) improves on the original. Not only is the movie's pace brisker but the all-new cast members define their characters more sharply: Kieran Culkin makes a savvier Ralph; Mary Steenburgen, a snappier Mom; Charles Grodin, a loonier, less fearsome Dad (despite his clenched teeth and an almost constipated delivery).
The one regrettable holdover from the first film: novelist and coscreenwriter Jean Shepherd's oh-so-drolly exaggerated and therefore condescending voice-over, which often reiterates what we're already seeing. (Of course, on video, we can always mute him.) Like Keillor's work, Shepherd's devout homage to Americana borders on escapism; none of the sociological reshuffling of the years to come is even hinted at. Toward the end of his story, Shepherd intones: ''That's the way things were then and still are, for that matter.'' Well, not quite. B+