Judge Dennis Prince never risked eye injury with air rifle gun slinging in his day but he did singe away a portion of his fingertip with a vintage Mattel Thingmaker.
Our reviews of A Christmas Story (published December 19th, 2000), A Christmas Story: Special Edition (published November 6th, 2003), and A Christmas Story (Blu-Ray) (published November 4th, 2008) are also available.
"I triple-dog dare ya!"
Actually, it's a triple dip as here we're offered a third DVD release of the quintessential Christmas film. Following an apathetic full-frame DVD bow, MGM did markedly better with 2003's 20th Anniversary Special Edition release. The transfer of that second coming, however, was still less than stellar and now we determine if the third time is truly the charm. We all know the visual revelation that has come with the HD DVD format, but the question on every erstwhile kid's lips remains—will this spiffy new HD version really shoot yer eye out?
Facts of the Case
Explaining the events of A Christmas Story seems almost as superfluous as that of recounting the events of ancient Bethlehem that underscores the annual holiday itself. Nevertheless, "Ralphie" Parker, pie-faced and pie-eyed, is severely preoccupied with acquiring the gift of gifts this Christmas, "an-official-Red-Ryder-carbine-action-200-shot-range-model-air-rifle-with-the-compass-in-the-stock-and-this-thing-that-tells-time." There's nothing surprising about Ralphie's yearning, especially since every other grammar-school-aged boy in Hohman, Indiana pines for the very same, appealing to Mom, Dad, Santa, or anyone who might be able to deliver the blue steel wonder. But Ralphie's window of opportunity is quickly closing, what with Christmas just weeks away and pressed to overcome the parental prejudice that would levy the unfounded retort, "you'll shoot your eye out." So as Ralphie grapples with his babyish younger brother, Randy, keeps pace with wise-acre friends Flick and Schwartz, fearfully eludes local bullies Scut Farkus and Grover Dill, and tries to keep from pulling his Old Man's tenuous hair-trigger, he never loses sight of the prize he so deeply desires. It's that or Tinkertoys.
A picture that exists as a very "tradition" in its own right, Bob Clark's 1983 sleeper hit A Christmas Story has been cited by most as the perennial holiday favorite. While 1946's It's a Wonderful Life and the subsequent year's Miracle on 34th Street are properly regarded as seasonal "classics," it's fitting that this latter-day low-budget affair has similarly warmed viewers' hearts by revisiting the same postwar era that produced Capra's and Seaton's respective pictures. Credit both director Clark and novelist/humorist/lecturer Jean Shepherd for their unrelenting attention to detail that faithfully paints a picture of 1940s working-class America with brush strokes that even Rockwell would have admired. Shepherd had been touring the college circuit, relaying his tales of the bygone era as published in his 1966 collection of inspired vignettes, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. Clark, fresh off the success of the decidedly more crass Porky's, was appropriately entranced when Shepherd personally relayed the story of Flick and the frozen flagpole. At that moment, the director imparts, he determined to film Shepherd's compelling recollections.
The picture, filmed in Cleveland, Ohio and Toronto, Canada, was produced at a time prior to computer-generated shortcuts and, instead, had to rely upon physical props and well-dressed locations to achieve its snowy Yuletide situation. From machine-made snow to an actual pre-Depression domicile on the fictitious Cleveland Street, A Christmas Story relied upon the honest-to-goodness staples of good filmmaking: ingenuity and an ingenious script. Now, some two-and-a-half decades later, the film is as effective as ever, thanks to its old-fashioned approach to effective storytelling.
And when it comes to the "story" itself, a read of Shepherd's book reveals the film is more faithful to the author's random recollections than many might expect. Really, the plot of the film is anything but linear, swerving in and out of kid-versus-kid, kid-versus-parent, and kid-versus-cuisine confrontations that occur as the snow falls and the calendar ticks away at the once-divine-now-indulgent celebration. Actually, this is the source of the film's charm (and that of Shepherd's book)—the manner in which the narrative weaves in and out of all-encompassing events that mark childhood, parenthood, and just-out-of-reach grasping of life's goals, be those an elusive air rifle or the fastest flat-tire fix ever recorded.
Thanks to the densely textured fabric of narrative detail on hand, the cast of actors appeared to slip easily into their roles. With perfect costuming, authentic set pieces, and vintage vocabulary, the characters come to life with nary a hint of actually "acting." Peter Billingsley handles the arduous task of helming the picture with apparent ease, then a tender 13 years old yet performing like a seasoned pro. He looks and acts as if he's stepped out of a 1940s Ovaltine ad, embodying the spirit and sensibility of a naïve youngster who's quickly developing a precocious sense of cynicism. Scott Schwarz is the fast-talking Flick, full of piss 'n vinegar among his buddies but equally quick to shed an embarrassing flow of tears when adversity comes his way. R.D. Robb as Schwarz is something of a know-it-all and is often the foil to Flick's boasts of bravado. Ian Petrella perfectly underplays kid brother Randy, while Zack Ward is the perfectly grungy yellow-eyed bully, Scut Farkus. Of course, the film could never have achieved (nor successfully exceeded) its aspirations without the omnipresence of the pitch-perfect grumbling of Darren McGavin as "the Old Man." The late actor, long regarded as the essential Carl Kolchak of '70s era The Night Stalker, is likewise pivotal to this picture whether he's blurting out a blanket of blasphemies or dancing about excitedly at the arrival of his "major award." Underappreciated but nonetheless effective is Melinda Dillon as Mom, she who embodies the unawares mentality of a 1940s housewife yet still manages to demonstrate her undeniable impact on the household.
With the film itself having risen to near-Heavenly regard, the matter of this particular release centers around how well it presents itself in the new high-definition format. Well, it is a mixed stocking full of offerings, really. The production value of the film itself tends to shoot the this effort in the foot at times, presenting a soft looking picture in the opening minutes. While the title and credits look sharper than what you saw in the previous standard definition release, the action itself is diffused (and arguably explained as an adherence to the look of the period). But just when you fear you've been duped into purchasing a disc that doesn't perform much better than an upconverted SD transfer, the picture bursts with sparkling color and crisp detail when Ralphie and Randy trudge their way through the snowy neighborhood to school. Likewise, the fateful flagpole never looked colder than it does here in all the detail that, thankfully, doesn't give away the truth behind the gag. But, look out, because the sequence where Ralphie helps the Old Man change the car tire on the roadside is so rife with film grain that you'll recoil from the sudden effect (I know I did). A quick look at the SD transfer reveals this grain has always been present, its just that the HD format really exacerbates the short-lived distraction. The audio is presented in a somewhat more energetic Dolby Digital-Plus 1.0 Mono mix that maintains a vintage aural texture yet keeps all elements clear and discernible. All told, the upgrade to the HD format is worthwhile but, due to the original source material, you won't find this to be a start-to-finish technical triumph.
As for extras, there's nothing new here that you haven't seen on the previous two-disc special edition. That's alright, though, since this can effectively replace your previous SD copy given the presence of the audio commentary with Clark and Billingsley, the short documentary, Another Christmas Story, the featurettes, Daisy Red Ryder: A History and Get a Leg Up, script pages of deleted sequences (previously an Easter Egg), Jean Shepherd's original readings, and the anamorphic theatrical trailer. The only features that haven't been ported over are the forgettable trivia challenge and the decoder match game.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
At this stage in the roll-out of the new HD DVD format, there is plenty of suspicion being cast upon the studios and their choices for upgraded releases. While many of the discs have been technical achievements in home entertainment, others have been less than spectacular yet nonetheless worthy because of their importance in the annals of film study and popular culture. For that reason, A Christmas Story is a fitting release in the format since it's a film that will get annual replay and, therefore, is perfect for the founding of a new library.
A Christmas Story is one of the select films that viewers can watch over and over again without ever tiring of the experience. It still elicits out-loud laughter while simultaneously warming the heart at the special time of year. With the improvements that can be found in this re-mastering, adding this third-dip release to your evolving home entertainment collection is an easy purchase.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Audio Commentary by Bob Clark and Peter Billingsley
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