Warner Bros. // 1983 // 98 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // December 19th, 2000
Peace, harmony, comfort and joy...maybe next year.
What could be better at Christmas time than the aptly named film A Christmas Story? Directed by Bob Clark (Porky's) and based on the late Jean Shepherd's book In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, A Christmas Story is a yuletide classic starring everyone's favorite Christmas gift schemer, little Ralphie (Peter Billingsley). Warner has released A Christmas Story on DVD, and sadly makes little progress on the original version put out by MGM (someone needs to get a ruler and smack these guys on the hands six or seven billion times...).
It's 1940 and Christmas time is just around the corner. In Indiana, little Ralphie (Billingsley) lives with his parents (the wonderful Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillion) and his little brother Randy (Ian Petrella). They are a typical '40s middle class family: Dad is hard working, Mom brings up the kids. Dad is the type of guy that, after a hard days work, wants to come home and just lay down, whereas Mom is generally perky and upbeat, attempting to keep her children in line. Such paves the way for little Ralphie and his attempts at collecting the most coveted Christmas gift of the year: A Red Ryder 200-shot carbine range air rifle.
The story generally follows Ralphie as he makes plans to coerce his parents into getting him his holy grail of presents. Along the way we'll meet several other wacked-out characters such as the local bully Scott Farkus (Zack Ward) ("There he stood, Scott Farkus, staring out at us with his yellow eyes. So help me God he had YELLOW EYES!"), Ms. Shields (Teddie Moore), the school teacher who is more uptight than Queen Elizabeth with a lemon up her butt, and, of course, the most cold-hearted Santa Claus since Silent Night, Deadly Night. All of this makes for one of the best (and weirdest) supporting casts in any Christmas film.
A Christmas Story is on my list as one of the best Christmas films of all time. I have yet to find another Christmas film that encompasses the spirit of the holiday as well as A Christmas Story does. Like It's A Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story was not well received in theaters when it was first released. However, A Christmas Story found new life on cable, popping up like chestnuts over a fire as the Christmas season neared.
A Christmas Story is really from a child's point of view, which may be where this film captures its innocence. Whereas most holiday films are from a family of parent's or an adult point of view, A Christmas Story lets us see the wonder and humor relived though the eyes of Ralphie. Who can't remember what it was like to pine for that one special gift, only to think you'll be snubbed come Christmas morn? When I was young I can recall wanting a "Transformers" action figure more than anything else in the world. I can remember hounding my parents for it all the way up to Christmas Eve. I can sympathize with Ralphie's plight.
It's almost amazing how this film is able to really capture the essence of the 1940s. It even pinpoints some of the triumphs and tragedies of childhood, from the dreaded "washing your mouth out with soap" to the fantastic feel of sitting in Santa's lap (though for Ralphie they'll be no candy cane when he leaves though those velvet ropes). Peter Billingsley as Ralphie is the perfect combination of youthful naïvetï and sly cunning, playing his "cute" card for all it's worth. The parents (named aptly "The Old Man" and "Mother") play their parts perfectly. The Old Man is cranky and boisterous, yet lovable in his own crankshaft way. Mother cares for her children, and fends off The Old Man's cantankerous behavior with a smile. Everyone else (including the menacing Zach Ward) do wonders with a script co-written by Shepherd, Clark and Leigh Brown. Shepherd even narrates the story, his voice filled with wonder and nostalgia.
A Christmas Story is presented in a full frame version, with no widescreen presentation in sight. There have been many complaints about this version released by Warner and the original by MGM. These complaints are valid. First off, this is a standard version, and who the hell wants that? The image is grainy, sometimes feeling out of focus and can be frustrating to watch for DVD aficionados. Colors tend to be muted while blacks are often soft and gray. HOWEVER (this is the only time you will hear me say this), these problems with the picture, for me, didn't not hinder my enjoyment of the film. I know that sounds bizarre, but this is a film that, with these technical problems, feels more like the '40s when I watch it. Maybe I grew up accustomed with the VHS version and have been conditioned. Either way, I didn't have as many problems as others did watching this version. I do, however, see how this will suck for a good many people. And yes, I would like to see a clear, crisp anamorphic version of this on DVD sometime soon. But for a movie I only watch once a year, I can live with this version (and will be awaiting my pink slip from my editor soon).
The audio portion of this disc is fine for what it accompanies. The Dolby Digital Mono track tends to be a bit "blah," but that's because it's MONO. Dialogue and music are fine without distortion, but nothing exciting will be thrown from your speakers. Also included are French, English, and Spanish subtitles and language tracks.
The only supplement that Warner has given us is a full frame trailer, only marginally fun to watch. However, with the quality of the video and audio presentation on this disc, it's almost like a Godsend that we've been given anything at all.
I think by now you've caught my drift of what the audio and video are for A Christmas Story. Though I'm not as hindered by it as some, it still could use worlds of improvements in both areas, along with the supplemental portion. What, is Bob Clark busy making Porky's 8: The Next Month? It would be great to have a commentary track or some behind-the-scenes footage on the making of A Christmas Story. Alas, we're treated to none of that.
As for the film itself, it's such a sweet treat that it's hard to say anything bad about the story or the performances. I did, however, cringe when one of Ralphie's friends got his tongue stuck to a frozen lamppost. Who hasn't had this catastrophe happen in their lives AT LEAST once? There was nothing more panic inducing as a child than realizing you just stuck your wet, warm flesh to a frozen metal bar. Writing this review is making me rethink staying out of therapy.
If you can live with the video being grainy and worn, then I would recommend picking this up. For the price tag of around $15.00-$20.00, it's not horribly priced. Plus, unless you live in the North Pole, it's probably something you'll only watch once a year. However, if you are nitpicky about your video/audio quality (and well you should be), then I would pass until Warner or MGM releases either a widescreen version or some better picture quality for the film.
Go ahead. I double-dog dare you to pick up this disc...no, I take that back. I TRIPLE-DOG DARE YOU.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 1983
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Theatrical Trailer