Judge Christopher Kulik wishes you a very happy Festivus!
Our reviews of National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (published December 19th, 2000), National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (HD DVD) (published December 18th, 2006), and National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation: Special Edition (published October 16th, 2003) are also available.
"Merry Christmas! Shitter's full!"
The perennial favorite National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation is now 20 years old. Hard to believe, isn't it? This now officially makes the movie a classic in my book and, so long we continue meeting with relatives over the holidays, it shall always be embraced as such. In celebration, Warner Bros. has issued the film in a new Collector's Edition packed inside a shiny red tin with some goodies in it. Looks nice, but is it really worthy enough to be a holiday gift?
Facts of the Case
Clark W. Griswold (Chevy Chase, Fletch) intends to spend the holidays at home with his loving wife Ellen (Beverly D'Angelo, The House Bunny) and their two kids, Audrey (Juliette Lewis, Whip It) and Rusty (Johnny Galecki, The Big Bang Theory). Of course, this will involve having to deal with a host of obnoxious relatives all coming to celebrate, resulting in utter disaster at every turn.
I actually remember seeing National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation in the theater with my mom and dad in December of 1989. Promising laughs aplenty, it delivered in huge doses, and we all got a kick out of it. The moment when the audience went nuts was when the cat got electrocuted and burned through the floor. Being a devoted cat lover, my mother was absolutely appalled and almost stormed out. And, yet, she eventually got over it and we ended up watching the film every Christmas.
How has Christmas Vacation endured all this time? Mostly it's because we can see a Griswold (or one of their relatives) in each and every one of us. Calling them the typical all-American family would be a stretch, because I believe few fathers are as idiotic as Clark and even fewer mothers are forgiving as Ellen. Still, we all know the pleasures and pitfalls of dealing with relatives during the holidays, and the late John Hughes tapped into the tradition with equal amounts hilarity and horror.
As with most of his scripts, however, Hughes also injected a certain amount of sentiment to keep everything grounded in reality, however warped it might be. Like Bob Clark's wonderful A Christmas Story, Hughes incorporates all the merry motifs in which we associate Christmas with the blessings, the trees, the egg nog, the turkey, the reading of "Twas The Night Before Christmas," et al. This combination of wacky slapstick, holiday cheer, and jolly crudeness makes Christmas Vacation a sheer delight, even if not all the gags hit the bullseye.
I don't care what anybody else says: Chevy Chase was born to play Clark W. Griswold. The SNL comic's once thriving career came to a screeching halt in the '90s, but he will now always be remembered because of the Vacation movies. Well-meaning but bumbling, Chase is immensely likeable despite his inane ideas and the occasionally over-the-top temper tantrum. It may be difficult to ascertain the true level of his sincerity, but he plays the bone-headed patriarch to the hilt and beyond.
Chase doesn't carry the movie alone, however, as he's surrounded by a brilliant, well-chosen supporting cast. Beverly D'Angelo more than holds her own as Ellen Griswold, orchestrating every horrified facial reaction in the book to her husband's manic behavior. The standout veterans include E.G. Marshall (Absolute Power), who's deliciously grumpy as Chase's father-in-law; William Hickey (Prizzi's Honor) and Mae Questel (who provided the voice of Betty Boop, among other things) are both a scream as the senile grandparents; and John Randolph (Seconds) is fabulous as Chase's father who, more often than not, provides a tender warmth to the proceedings.
However, we all know who the real scene-stealer is. That would be Randy Quaid (The Last Detail) as the ultimate white-trash slob Cousin Eddie. He was introduced in the original Vacation, and Hughes wisely brought him back here to wreak havoc throughout the entire second half. (His absence in the second film, the dismal European Vacation, was more than frustrating.) Whether he's slurping egg nog, talking about his dog's humping habit, or emptying the shitter of his RV into the sewer, Quaid is a crass tour-de-force.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As much as I love Christmas Vacation, I don't think it quite reaches the height of hilarity the first film did. The film does take a little time to get revved up, only reaching its riotous stride when the Griswold's house lights up and Cousin Eddie shows up. I'm not blaming freshman Jeremiah Chechik, although some of his direction in the first half is really sloppy.
I've also never cared about the cynical neighbors. While they are agreeably played by Nicholas Guest (Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines) and a pre-Seinfeld Julia Louis-Dreyfus, they feel out-of-place and seem to have no other purpose other than to be foils for Clark's destruction. Another minor aggravation is how the Griswold children are pushed off the sidelines this time around. Attention was paid to them in the first two films, but here they seem to disappear while all the other relatives take the spotlight.
Still, nothing is more nauseating than Warner Bros. treatment of the film on Blu-ray. Fans have scoffed at the studio's lackluster releases of all the Vacation films, but they've really screwed up with this glorified double-dip. The Blu-ray here is the exact same one released three years ago, with the only exception being the traditionally blue color case is switched to green this time around.
What's worse, the picture quality is alarmingly drab and full of grain. The 1.85:1 non-anamorphic print is on par with the special edition version, with a lack of sharpness and detail evident in every frame. The opening animated sequence and numerous other scenes also suffer from a heavy amount of darkness. If that isn't enough, the audio is still the same old Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track from all other previous releases. The music and dialogue are rendered okay, but the film could seriously benefit from an upgrade. Mono tracks are available in French and Spanish, with subtitles provided in all three languages.
Special features begin a full-length audio commentary with Quaid, D'Angelo, Galecki, Chechik, Miriam Flynn (who plays Eddie's daffy wife), and producer Matty Simmons. The absence of Chase is a disappointment, although his remarks on the first two films' commentaries weren't exactly substantial. Despite the number of participants, the enthusiasm is only mild, and the amount of information is limited. D'Angelo is chirpy, Galecki gets harped on, and Quaid is unusually quiet; as for Simmons, he does provide some interesting points (such as the cat electrocution being almost cut by studio). Still, this track is a real letdown for fans of the movie.
So, that basically leaves the goodies in the tin case. What you get are four coasters, a small bag of snow powder, a "I Survived A Griswold Family Christmas" pin, a Santa hat, and a plastic moose mug (a cheap, miniature version of the mugs Clark and Eddie drink egg nog out of). I can't even give Warner Bros. points for trying, as the $31.99 price tag is utterly preposterous. Hell, you might as well watch the film for free on TCM this year.
National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation may be entitled to classic status, but this Ultimate Collector's Edition is plain pathetic. If Warner Bros. ever intends on releasing this title again, they really need to give it a proper clean-up and upgrade.
While the film is free to go to keep playing every Christmas, Warner Bros. is found guilty for not only a disappointing Blu-ray, but also the lame stocking stuffers.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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