If my generation were to ever have our response to the comedic stoner euphoria that was early Cheech and Chong, it is the now seminal Harold & Kumar franchise of films. The multiracial duo of John Cho as constantly put upon and in over his head Harold alongside his self-destructive but brilliant and charismatic best friend Kumar (Kal Penn) have been delivering over the top laughs and outrageous stories for nearly a decade now. They have become symbols of the burgeoning movement amongst our nation’s youth that prolific use of marijuana isn’t just the past time of our nation’s poor and uneducated but is a hallmark of some our nation’s brightest and most talented youth. In the first film, Harold was at the beginning of a successful career in banking and Kumar was capable of performing surgery even though he hadn’t even started med school yet. In the franchise’s third entry, one would have been forgiven for having low hopes and expectations as third films in franchises (and even worse, Christmas themed films) don’t always have the best track record of high quality. Well, drop all of your concerns at the door because entry number three is potentially the best adventure yet for our half-baked heroes.

Years after the pair escaped from Guantanamo Bay, Harold and Kumar are no longer friends and, in fact, haven’t spoken for several years. Harold is now a wildly successful investment banker living in an obviously expensive house in the suburbs with his wife Maria (Paula Garces). Kumar has completely detached himself from society and lives in near complete squalor in a permanent haze of marijuana smoke. Kumar is greeted with the shocking news that his longtime girlfriend (who dumped him for giving up on life so completely) Vanessa  is pregnant with Kumar’s child. Harold’s biggest concern is the arrival of his father-in-law (Danny Trejo, Machete) whose approval he desperately desires but can not achieve. Fate brings Harold and Kumar back together when a mysterious package is delivered to Kumar’s apartment marked for Harold. After accidentally burning down Harold’s Christmas tree (which was personally grown by Harold’s father-in-law), Harold and Kumar (along with Harold’s best friend Todd [Thomas Lennon, Reno 911], Todd’s infant daughter, and Kumar’s friend Adrian), the group starts out on a quest to get a new Christmas tree that quickly spirals out of control into run-ins with Ukrainian mobsters, introducing an infant to weed, cocaine, ecstasy, and the Wu-Tang Clan, a Claymation drug trip, and of course the return of Neil Patrick Harris.

Rather than following in the creatively lazy steps of other comedy franchises and relying on recycled jokes and gags (with the exception of NPH’s return as well as a surprise stop to a certain hamburger joint), A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas instead takes the story both into uncharted (and surprisingly poignant) territories as well as completely shattering whatever remnant of a fourth wall existed in this series. This is one of the most patently over-the-top films I have ever seen, and while my most major complaint about the second film was how ridiculous it was compared to the more grounded original film, this entry succeeds where its predecessor fails by being so intentionally out there that you can’t help but want to see just where they’re going to take things next. Normally, in these sort of intentionally outrageous films, attempting to be serious would cause the jokes to fall flat because of the mood whiplash between surreal and absurdist humor against a potentially meaningful thematic message. A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas manages to bridge that seemingly impossible divide, and for the life of me, I can’t figure out how it worked except for the sheer comedy packed into virtually every second of this film.

I am not a fan of 3D. If there is ever an option to watch a movie in 2D or 3D, I will choose 2D every single time. I remember when Avatar was in theaters, I saw it twice, once in each format, and I distinctly remembered thinking that the 3D added legitimately nothing to the experience. It actually proved to be a detractor as the 3D glasses always give me headaches, and I simply ended up in physical pain by the end of the experience. No 3D film I had seen since then changed my opinion on the subject. However, A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas manages to make 3D work by deconstructing the over-proliferation of 3D and using it for often hilarious and comic effect. There are very few scenes in the film where the 3D isn’t used, and whether it’s clouds of billowing marijuana smoke, scalding maple syrup, confetti, a claymation penis, or whatever other sight gags the film is using, it always contributes to the experience rather than hurting or doing nothing. This is the only movie I can think of that I will voluntarily watch in 3D in the future and will always choose the 3D version over the regular.

While John Cho and Kal Penn (especially Kal Pennn) are as funny as they ever are, special praise must be given to two of the film’s supporting players. Neil Patrick Harris came out of the closet in real life after the movies immortalized him as a womanizing sexual predator. Not afraid to poke fun at himself, let us merely state that NPH survived his gunshot wounds in the previous film and his new homosexual public image is not off-limits for some seriously outrageous laughs. Similarly, Thomas Lennon who regularly stole Reno 911 as flamboyantly homosexual Sheriff Jim Dangle is able to garner nearly as many laughs as the film’s stars as a father whose baby gets dragged along for a night of illegal mayhem. With a super-polite and proper persona which is at odds with some of his most recognizable characters, watching Lennon’s transformation and his attempts to deal with his suddenly high daughter are among the funniest parts of the whole film.

Just when I thought it was going to be impossible for 2011 to produce a better straight comedy than Horrible Bosses, A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas decided to come along and throw it’s hat in the ring. It’s going to take a couple more views before I can decide for sure, but I can easily say that this film is in the running and it’s a close race. For those who aren’t fans of the series, this will likely not do much to change your mind, but for those who appreciate wicked smart stoner humor and have a healthy respect for taking a wrecking machine to the proverbial fourth wall, this film will leave you in stitches from beginning to end. There really isn’t much more you can ask for when it comes to a third entry in a film franchise, and this is probably the funniest Christmas themed movie that I’ve ever seen.

Final Score: A-