Directed by Harold Ramis in 1983 and based on a script by the late John Hughes, National Lampoon's Vacation will speak to anyone whose parents ever dragged them across the country or on a massive road trip during their younger days. The film focuses on the Griswold family - lead by husband and father Clark (Chevy Chase), his hot wife Ellen (Beverly D'Angelo) and their two kids, Rusty (Anthony Michael Hall) and Audrey (Dana Barron) - as they pile into the car and drive west from Chicago to California. Their mission? Wally World! A Walt Disney World-esque theme park whose figurehead, Marty Moose, provides them with plenty of laughs as they enthusiastically sing his theme song at the beginning of their trip.
Of course, things go wrong from the very beginning - Clark doesn't get the new car he'd had his eyes on and instead leaves the lot with lemon (sold to him by none other than Eugene Levy) and it just sort fo all goes downhill from there, culminating in a visit to Ellen's cousins, Eddie (Randy Quaid) and Catharine (Miriam Flynn) and their kids, a pre-teen pothead named Vicki (Jane Krakowski) and a nudie magazine fan named Dale (John Navin). This winds up with Clark and Ellen being 'volunteered' to drop off aging Aunt Edna (Imogene Coca) and her obnoxious dog, Dinky, in Arizona on their way. With the stress mounting, car troubles galore and financial stress pushing the trip over budget very quickly, you can't help but wonder when Clark is going to snap, and you can't really fault him for taking some solace in the attentions of the pretty blonde in a Ferrari (Christie Brinkley) who seems to take an unnatural liking to him.
Like every comedy, here some jokes work better than others but for the most part, Vacation is pretty consistent in terms of its laugh factor. While Chase is given better material than most of the cast members to work with, all involved do a pretty good job with the script. Randy Quaid, here sowing the seeds of the character he'd return to (and perfect) in Christmas Vacation and then Vegas Vacation, does fine as Cousin Eddie, bringing a dopey white trash charm to his well meaning but bumbling Eddie. Beverly D'Angelo has a nice 'stand by your man' sticktoitnesss about her that makes her incredibly likeable, and her sex appeal can't go unmentioned either. Imogene Coca is perfectly cast as the crotchety Aunt Edna, playing the bitch role just as effectively as you could hope for, while Barron and Hall are fine, if slightly disposable, as the kids. This is, for the most part, Chase's show, however, particularly in the latter half of the film when things start to get hectic and you can that the water is coming to a boil. We won't discuss the ending, as we don't want to spoil it for the one or two people out there who haven't seen the film before, but it's a good one (and it features a bit part cameo from the late, great John Candy).
As far as the pacing goes, at an hour and forty minutes the Griswold clan never feel like they're overstaying their welcome. The film moves quickly and provides enough humor along the way that it's never dull. You'll have Lindsay Buckingham's 'Holiday Road' stuck in your head long after the end credits have rolled and the film, probably not intentionally, provides some nice travelogue footage of the Midwest and later the desert states as it heads towards its ultimate destination.
If the film has one problem, it's that Ramis treats the material like the television show he cut his teeth on (SCTV) and so the film often times feels like a series of sketch comedy bits rather than a cohesive, plot driven picture. Some might find that a detriment, but it helps keep the entertainment value high. Think about how many times you've come across the film (edited and cropped, most likely) on TV and not changed the channel. It's a film you can basically pop into at any given point and enjoy without seeing the beginning. In some ways, this probably pigeonholes the film as light entertainment or a fluff piece, but really, who cares. It's funny and that's all that really matters in the long run. Ultimately it's a well crafted film that's easy to relate to and which features some memorable characters and a lot of good laughs - what more could you want?
Note: The Blu-ray does not restore 'I'm So Excited' to the soundtrack. It was there in theaters and on VHS but it's been changed since the advent of DVD and that change puzzlingly persists on this Blu-ray disc.
National Lampoon's Vacation arrives on Blu-ray in an AVC encoded 1.85.1 1080p high definition widescreen transfer that looks pretty decent for the film's age even if it isn't going to knock you to the floor and make you drool. Some scenes are softer than others but this is the way that the film has looked in past home video presentations as well and so it's likely just the way that it was shot. Skin tones look pretty lifelike and color reproduction is nice and natural if maybe just a little bit on the subdued side. There isn't much in the way of print damage or heavy grain to report at all, and the image looks clean and clear without seeming to have been overly processed on its way to Blu-ray. Detail is definitely stronger and improved over the standard definition release, as is texture and clarity, but this isn't going to really wow you. Edge enhancement is kept to a minimum and there are no problems with compression to note. All in all, the movie looks pretty good here, if a bit unremarkable.
The primary mix on this disc is an English language DTS-HD 1.0 track, though alternate Dolby Digital Mono tracks are provided in French, Spanish and German. Subtitles are offered up in English, French, German, Spanish, Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish. The sound mix here is fine, there aren't any audible issues to note. The soudntrack has a bit more punch than it did on standard definition DVD and the sound effects as well (listen to the scene where Clark drives into the desert) but this is still a single channel track. Dialgoue is always easy to follow and the levels are well balanced. Generally, the movie sounds just fine.
Aside from a brief, one minute introduction with Chevy Chase, Randy Quaid and producer Matty Simmons, the only extra of much note is the commentary track in which those three men are joined by director Harold Ramis and performers Anthony Michael Hall and Dana Barron. Everyone was recorded as one big group except for Ramis, who was recorded on his own. Generally, this is a pretty active track. It's been put together in such a way that it's very screen specific so as the movie plays out, we're able to learn what happened during the creation of certain scenes and we get to hear some interesting stories about what happened on set. It's not going to have your sides splitting from laughter (and in fact, there are stretches where the participants basically just tell us what we're seeing on screen - never a good thing in a commentary track, but an all too common problem with many of them) but it discusses most of the main points of the film and even goes into some detail about the original ending.
Menus and chapter stops round out the disc. For some reason the trailer and the bonus clips that were included on the standard definition DVD release have been omitted from this Blu-ray disc.
If you ever had overzealous parents drag you on a cross country trip, you'll understand how and why National Lampoon's Vacation remains as beloved as it is - for many of us, this is a film that hits quite close to home! Chase will likely always be remembered as Clark Griswold and he's in fine form here, while the supporting cast all turn in great work of their own. Warner Brothers' Blu-ray release looks and sounds pretty decent, though it provides no new special features and in fact actually omits some from the previous DVD release. Regardless, the movie holds up really well, and the marginally improved audio and video quality make this one easy to recommend.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.