Warner Bros. // 1989 // 97 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Dennis Prince (Retired) // December 18th, 2006
"It's just that I know how you build things up in your mind, Sparky. You set standards that no family event can ever live up to."
"When have I ever done that?"
As the Christmas holiday season rolls around, many among us look forward to an annual reunion and refreshing.
This Christmas, Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase, Saturday Night Live) isn't embarking on an epic trek nor determined to sojourn to his supposed motherland. Instead, he's decided to undertake the most ambitious endeavor of all: opening up his home to host the grandest family gathering on record.
Heaven help them all.
Having been his long-time dream to spend the holiday with those closest to him, Clark invites his folks, (John Randolph & Diane Ladd), his in-laws, (E.G. Marshall & Doris Roberts), and even the incorrigible Uncle Lewis (William Hickey) and senile Aunt Bethany (Mae Questel). The uninvited but begrudgingly welcomed Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) and clan make a surprise visit with intentions to stay until sometime in January. Keeping his heart centered on the reason for the season, Clark shrugs off whatever strife comes his way, from getting locked in the attic to powering 2,500 imported Christmas lights to fending off an assailing squirrel. This is the most joyous time of year and Clark's determined warm everyone's hearts this year...whether they like it or not.
National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation became a quick holiday standard and has rightly earned a "must watch" status when the annual Yule festivities commence. John Hughes returned to script this daffy misadventure, hitting all the right holiday notes in perfectly flat tones. The film manages to rub all the raw nerves that each of us has and may have to endure as we gather closely with family and friends, reminding ourselves why such an endeavor can only be tolerated once a year. Thankfully, though, the film isn't mean-spirited like so many current-day holiday pictures, choosing to again make Clark the scapegoat for all the improprieties, injustices, and even injuries that afflict the well-intentioned holiday do-gooders. It's a lark and a laugh with a script that, most importantly, helps us laugh at ourselves or instill an even greater helpful attitude toward those who may offer to invite us into their home.
While we all expect the overzealous Clark to come off as a gross over-characterization of "SuperDad," Chase doesn't miss a beat in his pitch-perfect comedic timing and painful pratfalls. The beauty of this film, however, is the collection of spot-on characters that join Clark at his holiday hearth. Beverly D'Angelo plays superbly opposite Chase, rolling her eyes and summoning up saint-like levels of patience in response to her incurably idealistic "Sparky." New to the role of teenage daughter Audrey is the excellently acidic Juliette Lewis, while the younger Johnny Galecki tries his hand as the supportive-but-strained Rusty, delivering one of the film's best reaction shots through his panicked laugh when offered a quarter to rub Grandma's bunion. While all of the veteran actors do well in their roles as the senior family members, E.G. Marshall stand outs as the best of the bunch, always grumbling through the gala festivities and quick to point out any fly in Clark's ointment. Randy Quaid, of course, will again bring on the gag reflex as the grotesque Cousin Eddie. Whether he's shrugging off the family dog yarking under the dinner table or happily emptying his RV's holding tank into the neighborhood sewer, Quaid genuinely (and effortlessly) will make your skin crawl here. In all, the film works so well because of its ensemble cast of characters, with some character sure to embody somebody you've anxiously sat next to at the holiday table.
A fitting candidate for this season's HD-DVD release list, Warner Brothers has wrapped up National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation in new packaging that somewhat overshoots its own mark and even bears the tell-tale signs of re-gifting. More to the point, what you see here appears to be a high-def dupe of the 2003 Standard Definition (SD) release. Given that disc wasn't digital dilettante's delight, what we get here is a showing that's a bit too highly defined for its own good. Although the packaging notes a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the image appears to actually be framed at the display-friendly ratio of 1.78:1. Therefore, the picture fills a widescreen display quite nicely without any noticeable overscan. On the plus side, the colors in this transfer are warm and deeply saturated, just like Cousin Eddie after a few too many cups of stiff eggnog. As for the detail levels, this is where the presentation overperforms, similar to Clark's home-lighting overload. The transfer bears an immediately noticeable level of fine grain, almost distracting during the enjoyable animated credits sequence. During the film proper, the grain is somewhat less apparent and tends to resemble authentic film grain, exposed more so here by the dutiful, if not over-achieving, HD encoding. A quick side-by-side comparison with the SD release reveals the presence of the same grain, though not as vivid, giving credence to assertions of a hurried VC-1 conversion. The result is certainly not unwatchable and, frankly, I prefer this one to the former disc, but be prepared for a less-than-reference-quality showing. As you ready yourself for this one, you might improve your viewing experience by sitting a suitable distance from the monitor and perhaps temporarily adjusting your display settings a skosh, if that suits you.
The soundtrack here is interesting in that it breaks away from other HD releases with its Dolby Digital-Plus 2.0n Stereo mix. Rather than re-mix to 5.1 as most other releases have, we get a more contained audio that utilizes only the front two channels. Mind you, the mix is energetic and well balanced, keeping excellent separation between dialogue, effects, and score, but it does lack the enveloping experience we've come to enjoy from the new format. Perhaps the folks at WB are on a bit of a Christmas budget, huh? Again, although this isn't among Warners' strongest HD releases, it's nonetheless an improvement for which we're generally thankful.
The extras here are ported over verbatim from the SD "special edition" release of 2003. This begins with the audio commentary that reunites Quaid, D'Angelo, Galecki, Flynn, Director Jeremiah Chechik, and Producer Matty Simmons. While there are several quiet points, largely the group keeps the chatting moving along. Since this is the same commentary that was previously released, we still sting from the absence of Chevy Chase. It's a reasonably entertaining and sometimes informative track but certainly not what we'd hoped Santa would bring. The original theatrical trailer is here, although it looks a bit rough.
Early adopters of the HD format will certainly feel they've been served a lump of coal here. If this release was a test of how effective a fast transfer might be, then be ready for more HD quickies of studio catalog titles. This tactic is nothing new to long-time DVD enthusiasts, they who feel cheated by indifferent masterings tossed across the table in bare-bones offerings. Again, there is definite improvement here over the SD version, but at the current cost of this new format, consumers definitely deserve better, especially if the studios are hopeful that format adopters will indulge in the double-dip.
Face it -- National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation is a modern-day holiday classic; a requisite indulgence right alongside the jiggly ringed ingot called canned cranberry sauce. It wouldn't be Christmas without this picture and it somehow wouldn't be proper to leave this one out of the ever-growing HD-DVD library. It's not the most adept technical achievement in the promising new home entertainment format, but it's tasty nonetheless. Go ahead and enjoy a second helping.
This court finds the Clark Griswold not guilty by reason of an insane desire that he and his family occupy a Currier & Ives composition. Warner Brothers is hereby put on probation, though, given their cut-rate work in this HD quickie.
Review content copyright © 2006 Dennis Prince; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital Plus 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital Plus 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital Plus 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Audio commentary
* Theatrical trailer