Of course. Santa. The big man. The head honcho. The connection.
Ha, my mother had slipped up this time.
-- Adult Ralphie, A Christmas Story
Opening up this A Christmas Story: Ultimate Collector's Edition was a lot like tearing into a great present that you've received like clockwork year after year for the past few years, only with a few new bells and whistles for added value this time around. To commemorate the 25th Anniversary of Bob Clark's Christmas classic, Warner Bros. have built this nifty package that includes a set of cookie cutters, a Christmas Story-themed apron, and a thin hard-bound photo essay / cookbook all wedged into an attractive metal casing that resembles a vintage cookie tin. Oh, and it does come with a copy of A Christmas Story: Two-Disc Special Edition -- but it's the same edition that's been on the market for around five (5) years now, only with redesigned coverart, discart, and a slipcover to streamline the old design. Still, cracking into this tin-'o-goodies and watching the movie for the umpteenth-million time still made me wish that the seasons would pass just a little bit quicker.
A Christmas Story has become a staple in the routine of many families over the holidays, whether it's concentrated movie-watching from open eyes and ears or even as fluttering background music to people's own stories of Christmas. And why wouldn't it become a mainstay: it's a colorful film that's easy on the eyes, pleasant to the ears with carols and humorous dialogue, and so warm to the heart that it's sure to spark a little of the cheer in almost any scrooge. But some people don't see the reason in owning it on DVD because of its holiday limits, especially when it plays over-and-over-and-over on Christmas Day itself. My argument to that is simple: A Christmas Story should be one of those holiday films enjoyed throughout the season, from the 1st to the 31st, for its memorable scene-by-scene decor and iconic quotables that really get the festive spirits flowing. And, dare I say, it's a film that might even merit a showing or two in the less-festive seasons of the year.
Part of what makes this bundled adaptation of Jean Shepherd's short stories unique lies in its ability to equally be both dated and timeless. As it follows the life and times of grade school hooligan Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsly) as he trumps through the snowy Indiana suburbs with his puffy little brother brother Randy (Ian Petrella) and goober-ish friends Flick and Schwartz, it doesn't just transport the viewer back to the 1940's with Little Orphan Annie radio shows and mail order prize winnings -- it takes you into the mind of a young boy during this "important" time of the year. Christmas isn't just a time of the year where presents are asked for and left to Santa's whims, not in Ralphie's eyes; instead, it's a near-surgical chain of scheming and verbose implanted on his parents (Darren McGavin, Melinda Dillon) that ranges from product placement in his mother's Look magazines to sly conniving in wearing down the old man's legendary stubbornness. At times, I wish I would've been that sneaky as a kid -- but, then again, I probably was.
Watching Ralphie yearn for his "Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two Hundred Shot Model Air Rifle" (read: fancy-pants BB gun) in A Christmas Story reflects a desire that we've all had at least once in our lives for something tangible, something fun. The voiceover from adult Ralphie that accessorizes our story transforms it into more of a memory of his childhood than as a portrait; maybe it's because of the interesting timelessness of it all -- an '80s film transporting back 40 years for its story, but then taken back to present time by narration from a man reminiscing who's probably in his 40s -- that we get so wrapped up, since it seems like it'll be accessible even twenty or thirty years down the line. It's a memory filled with childhood cursing followed by a bar of soap jammed in the mouth, as well as teacher trickery in the classroom via snaggletooth mouth trinkets and chattering wind-up teeth. Though kids these days aren't asking for the same toys and using the same tools to their bidding, it does remind us that timely change doesn't necessarily nix somewhat inherent instincts. Especially when Christmas is involved.
A Christmas Story succeeds because it stays vibrant, reminiscent, and funny all the way through Ralphie's distress -- something every family wishes for during the holidays. Jean Shepherd's screenplay, combined with untouchable performances from the entire Parker family amid an array of little interwoven mini-plots, builds a dynamic between all of them that can be sneaky and sharp-edged, but earnest and good-willed with the second turn. We can't help but laugh at Papa Parker's pronunciation at the word "fragile" as he cracks open his grand prize, then turn around and let out a bit more laughter as the image of the Red Ryder-eyed youngster strokes the leg of "electric sex" as his mother looks at it as nothing but a tacky lamp. Melinda Dillon and Darren McGavin as the half-bickering, half-poking, all-loving married '40s couple get everything just right -- from mannerisms between the two to their parenting skills. They help the saga of the leg lamp become the stuff of legend, one that has etched into film history as a device of satisfaction, pride, lust, jealousy, and a housewife's scorn.
Sounds an awful lot like the struggle with the BB gun, doesn't it? Exactly. But that's not the only fun device within Shepherd's little interwoven stories that connects on a broader-themed scale. He also pokes fun at battling the neighborhood bully Scut Farkus (Zack Ward, TV's Titus), standing up to schoolyard dares amid childhood culture with the icy flagpole, as well as tinkering with early childhood disappointment with the transition-age Ralph. Jean Shepherd found a way to verbalize all these memories of childhood in lavish lyrical fashion, and it's both hilarious and surprisingly catalytic to our own memories -- especially within the spot-on portrayal of the ideal Christmas morning's radiant mood. It's the perfect nostalgic vehicle, as each gear interconnects and churns amid photography constructed the way you'd probably imagine Norman Rockwell illustrations to look in live-motion.
There's very little not to love about A Christmas Story, including a lot of material that doesn't stand out as those mainstream nuggets that Bob Clark's chunk of holiday gold has become renowned for. So much Americana comes crammed into this classic that it practically busts at the seams, which becomes its real not-so-secret weapon at tapping into its ageless audience. And, I must confess, A Christmas Story has been a long-standing favorite film of mine for quite some time now, as if my fawning adoration didn't leap from these words. On occasions I've teased about Bob Clark's "other" Christmas film being my favorite, the dreadfully tense Black Christmas; but, when the sarcasm subsides, it's all about A Christmas Story's faultless nature that stands like the crooked star atop the Parker's Christmas tree -- which is perfect enough.
Marking its 25th Anniversary somewhat inauspiciously with barely a mention of it anywhere on the packaging -- outside of a quick blurb at the top of the little outer cardboard slip -- A Christmas Story's Ultimate Collector's Gift Set comes loaded with a slew of trinkets and memorabilia. Once the shrinkwrap is removed and the cookie tin is opened, you'll find that the DVD is a redesigned presentation of the 2003 Two-Disc Special Edition in a standard double-disc keepcase with a glossy slipcover sheathing it. It's somewhat nice looking, but not quite as lavish or attractive as the original digipack riddled with colors and decor of the season.
Also inside, jammed rather neatly with a cardboard support, is a cookie-baker's starter kit. There's an Apron with the film's logo on the chest, as well as a set of Cookie Cutters that contain the following shapes: a star, a house, a turkey, a leg lamp, and an outline of Ralphie in his bunny costume. They're fairly sturdy, which should net you a few Christmastime uses. But the big seller here, the one that'll probably drive a few enthusiasts a wee bit closer to a purchase, is this sharp little 48-page hard-bound "Recipe Cookbook". Only half of the pages really have recipes on them, with range in dishes from several different kinds of cookies to one for Chinese Turkey (Duck). Out of all the stuff included, it's without question the most substantial and well-crafted.
As previously mentioned, everything comes replicated from the 2003 Special Edition, which includes the 1.78:1 visual transfer. That's a real shame, because A Christmas Story is in need of a five-year spitshine to spruce up the print. Detail and color saturation actually resonate with substantial strength, but the amount of little blips and dust scratches seem fairly frequent by today's standards. The other problem is the digital noise created by the mass amount of material on this disc, which covers both widescreen and fullscreen presentations. Our result displays muddy details in faces, noisy backgrounds, and flickering black levels that suffer in many darker scenes -- but it all really doesn't look too shabby. Still, this is a wholly watchable and pleasant presentation of the film, even with its little age difficulties.
Here, the Dolby Mono track gets everything done that it needs to. For the relatively non-dynamic soundstage that A Christmas Story takes, the lack of a Dolby Digital 5.1 track isn't much of an issue since both vocal and score strength is pitched properly. Actually, it's pretty darn impressive to hear exactly how much this one-channel track can really accomplish, as it sounds rich and clean all the way through without too much strain. A French Mono track is also available, as are English, French, and Spanish subtitles
On Disc One, we have the original Commentary with Bob Clark and Peter Billingsly that concentrates a lot on filming locations, author Jean Shepherd, and other elements in the filming process. There are a few breaks in the track where there's little to no dialogue from the two main attractions, but it's still an insightful and laid back track. Also included on the first disc is a humorous, spoiler-filled Theatrical Trailer, as well as an Eastern Egg in the form of the scripted "Flash Gordon" Deleted Scene that can be found directly underneath the "Theatrical Trailer" text.
On Disc Two, the two main attractions are the eighteen minute Another Christmas Story documentary that features interviews with the cast members on their associations, shooting, and Christmastime itself, as well as an offering of Jean Shepherd Original Readings (labeled Radio) that feature some of the core short stories featured in A Christmas Story's secondary plot devices. Two more featurettes are included about props from the film, entitled Get a Leg Up which features interview time with the lamp's creator and History of Red Ryder which focuses on the Daisy Air rifle company and the boys' affection for the gun. Also, there's a few goofy trivia games -- including the Triple Dog Dare interactive game and the Decoder Ring game -- which feature further interview time with the grown stars.
Bob Clark's film itself is an unmitigated Christmas classic, one that's become as reliable as a stopwatch for holiday joy, cheer, and humor. It's a great way to start and end the season, and a wonderfully warm film on top of that that comes beyond recommendation. If you've already purchased A Christmas Story in its two-disc form about five years ago, however, then this new A Christmas Story: Ultimate Collector's Edition will be desirable purely for all the extra bells and whistles -- which, admittedly, are pretty darn cool. Though there's many different kind of collector's sets out there, this one at least gets an excuse since it's based off of a holiday glorified for its excessive little gifts. Therefore, stick with the 2003 Special Edition if you've already picked it up at some point; but if you haven't, or if the collector in you gets the itch to own some very snazzy little film collectibles, then this edition comes very firmly Recommended. It's a neat set that'll put a smile on the face of just about any Christmas Story fan out there.