National Lampoon's Christmas VacationOverview -
It's Christmas time and the Griswolds are preparing for a family seasonal celebration, but things never run smoothly for Clark, his wife Ellen and their two kids. Clark's continual bad luck is worsened by his obnoxious family guests, but he manages to keep going knowing that his Christmas bonus is due soon.
Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take
Ah, the Griswolds. Their lamest moments aside, you can't help but miss them. The first 'National Lampoon's Vacation' movie created such a little legacy for itself that it has truly become an iconic slice of American pop culture. Even though none of the entries in the franchise were genuine blockbusters, it seems like there is no one on the planet who hasn't seen a 'Vacation' flick. And we all have our favorites. But 'Christmas Vacation' remains particularly beloved by many, not only because it breaks with series tradition and sees the Griswolds not take an actual vacation, but it also gives the filmmakers their best target in the entire franchise: the family holiday spent at home.
Since Clark (Chevy Chase) and company (including a returning Beverly D'Angelo and new kids Juliette Lewis and Johnny Galecki) have no destination in 'Christmas Vacation,' there is far less story this time around. More a string of gags than a full-fledged plot, Clark gets in over his head trying to bring the spirit of Christmas to the Griswold home -- and that's about it. The fact that Clark's Christmas bonus is late arriving doesn't help to lift spirits, nor does a last-minute visit by the in-laws (John Randolph, Diane Ladd, E.G. Marshall and Doris Roberts), a pair of obnoxious yuppies next door (Nicholas Guest and Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and a return pit stop for Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid). Needless to say, much dysfunction follows, including Clark's inevitable pratfalls, an overabundance of Christmas lights, one nervous breakdown, a string of vulgarities from Eddie and, perhaps a few heartwarming life lessons along the way.
'National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation' was written by John Hughes, and the film's haphazard tone, structure and humor have his name written all over it. I once read an interview with the now-reclusive auteur where he admitted that he always hated rewriting scripts and rarely, if ever, did so. Watching 'Christmas Vacation' again, I don't doubt that statement. Make no mistake, though, much of the film is funny -- hysterical, even. But there is just as much that doesn't work, and a bit more screwdriver work on the screenplay could have made 'Christmas Vacation' truly brilliant.
The classic sequences are many, especially in the largely hilarious first half. I especially liked Clark getting the family car (complete with oversized tree) stuck under a moving truck; the unfolding of a monster Christmas tree that is sure to tumble; Clark's overzealous attempts to out-Christmas light the neighborhood with 25,000 imported bulbs; and even an appearance by Jason Voorhees, complete with hockey mask and chainsaw. It is also impressive how Chase and D'Angelo managed to sustain a believable and endearing chemistry after four flicks together. They really make these movies work -- without them, 'Christmas Vacation' would have no heart at all (especially D'Angelo, who despite a truly thankless role was always able to make Chase's lunacy ten times funnier with a simple eye-roll and a frown).
However, Hughes and director Jeremiah Chechik -- perhaps responding to commercial concerns -- can't resist adding a sentimental spin. Borrowing heavily from Hughes' own 'Planes, Trains & Automobiles,' which came out two years earlier, and predating his 'Home Alone' (1990), the heartwarming climactic bits feel a bit forced and false. I was also surprised how vulgar the humor can get -- a little Cousin Eddie goes a long way for me -- though I have to remind myself that the first 'Vacation' was rated R, so to be fair the crude gags are in keeping with the series' roots. I also wished the in-laws had been a bit more funny, and that both Galecki and Lewis had been given something to do other than merely react wide-eyed to Clark's every quip. Still, while 'Christmas Vacation' will never beat the first film for me, it is far preferable to both 'European Vacation' and (heaven help us) 'Vegas Vacation.' And while personally I'll forever be firing up 'A Christmas Story' at the holidays instead of 'Christmas Vacation,' I can't deny that this is one return visit with the Griswolds well worth taking.
As I lamented in my HD DVD review of 'Christmas Vacation,' I hate being a Grinch, but this is probably the weakest next-gen master I've seen yet from Warner. Granted, it is still an improvement over the standard-def DVD release, but that's not saying much, as the source material is still quite dated and sorely in need of a clean-up.
'Christmas Vacation' on Blu-ray is presented in 1.78:1 widescreen and 1080p/VC-1 video. Blacks are fine, but contrast lacks pop. Most scenes look flat and two-dimensional. Softness is also all over the place -- some scenes are nice and crisp, others fuzzy and ill-defined. Colors can be fairly well saturated, but again they are inconsistent -- some shots are as icky and pasty as an over-the-air standard-def broadcast. Hues certainly never leap off the screen as we have come to expect on even the most marginal high-def transfers. Fleshtones also look too red, making Chevy Chase's already-round face even more piggish. A low level of grain also permeates the transfer, and dirt and speckles are frequent, if still minor.
'Christmas Vacation' is one of the few Blu-ray titles presented in Dolby Digital-Plus 2.0 stereo -- in fact, I think it might be the only one so far. Even at a healthy 640kbps bitrate however, there isn't much you can do with source elements like this. For a soundtrack produced in 1989, 'Christmas Vacation' certainly isn't bad, but it also sounds just about every one of its nearly twenty years of age.
At least it's clean. The audio stems aren't crackly or overly harsh. High and low end, however, sound smooshed together into the midrange -- this is one flat soundtrack. Dialogue also sounds ADR'd at times, and somewhat muted -- it certainly is never as distinct as a modern mix (turn it up or you may have trouble understanding Cousin Eddie's mumbles). Stereo effects are perfectly fine, with a few front pans, but that's about it. Hey, it's a two-channel mix -- even Santa can't work magic with a lump of coal.
Originally billed as a "Special Edition" when it was released on standard-def DVD, there wasn't much special about 'Christmas Vacation' in its DVD release. Aside from a theatrical trailer, the only true extra was an audio commentary with the cast and filmmakers. Both of those goodies are repurposed here. The commentary, while quite packed with participants, is missing its main ingredient. No offense to director Jeremiah Chechik, producer Matty Simmons and stars Randy Quaid, Beverly D'Angelo, Johnny Galecki and Miriam Flynn, but just as it is hard to imagine a 'Vacation' flick without Chevy Chase, it is just as hard to imagine a commentary on a 'Vacation' DVD without him, either. It also doesn't help that this is one of those weird group tracks where no one really seems all that thrilled to be there. Perhaps Chase would have stepped up to the plate and led the discussion; as such we get a few funny anecdotes, but a weird inorganic nature permeates the proceedings. I also found it a bit annoying that everyone kept referring to deleted scenes that have never been included in any home video release of the film. Sorry, but bah humbug!
'National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation' is considered by many to be a modern holiday classic. I like a lot of the movie, but it can also be rather hit-or-miss. I'll always prefer the original 'Vacation,' but this one is still way better than the Griswold's European and Vegas adventures. Unfortunately, I can't say much for this Blu-ray release. It is just as lackluster as its HD DVD counterpart. The transfer suffers from poor source material, while the 2.0 channel mix ain't much better. Maybe someday Warner will truly restore all of the 'Vacation' flicks (or at least the good ones), but until then, it is hard to recommend plunking down the holiday plastic for a disc this weak.
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