In 10 Words or Less
A hilarious road trip remains a classic
Loves: National Lampoon's Vacation, Jane Krakowski
Likes: Harold Ramis
Dislikes: Chevy Chase now
Hates: Most anniversary edition video releases
The Story So Far...
Adapted by John Hughes from his story in National Lampoon and directed by Harold Ramis following his debut on Caddyshack, National Lampoon's Vacation tells the story of the Griswolds, an unfortunate family of four who set out from Chicago for a trip to California, only to find a rough road ahead of them, largely thanks to their dopey patriarch Clark (Chevy Chase.) A favorite for decades, the film has seen many home video releases, including a Blu-ray released just a few years ago. DVDTalk has reviews of that disc, and the 20th Anniversary DVD.
We've probably reached a point in history where more people know the National Lampoon for the awful licensing deals that have seen the name slapped on garbage like Dorm Daze and Cattle Call, than for the genuinely funny material it was responsible for back in its glory days. Every now and then, an old title will get a re-release, reminding us all of what National Lampoon once stood for, but you can't help but think that rather than redeeming the franchise, they just serve to lend value to the name so another awful T&A movie can trick a few more viewers. That doesn't take away from a movie like Vacation, but it does remind us how far the mighty have fallen.
It was indeed a far distance to fall, considering two of the franchise's first four movies were the classic Animal House and the dark comedy Vacation. Fondly remembered for the ridiculously relatable experience of a family road trip gone horribly, horribly wrong, and the wealth of memorable dialogue, the film crosses generations, coming up just short of being a family movie thanks to, well, all the cursing, nudity and drugs. But if there are no kids in the room everyone will have a good time watching the Griswolds suffer their way across America.
Though the trip is obviously the plot that holds everything together, the film moves along via a series of moments that are mostly disconnected, be it an uncomfortable detour through inner-city East St. Louis, a run-in with cranky Aunt Edna (the great Imogene Coca) and some mad-cap driving. The two segmentsthat everyone remembers though are a stop in Kansas at the home of crazy cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) and the repeated appearances by a sexy blonde in a red Ferrari (Christy Brinkley), who tempts Clark again and again. Though it's just a small part of the overall film, Eddie's family, including a young (and very funny) Jane Krakowski as the pig-farming daughter who's a little too close to her father, steals the show with their oddball behavior, working in tandem with the hilarity of the Griswolds' culture-clash responses. Brinkley, on the other hand, isn't all that funny, but somehow when she strips down and dives in the pool, it has a way of grabbing attention, and like Cousin Eddie's clan, she sets up Chase to deliver some classic reactions..
Behind the wheel as the leader of the pack, Chase makes Clark into the dweeby dad no family wants to get stuck in the car with for days on end, as his awkward attempts to be cool mix with his inherent failures as a leader to create a classic dumb dad. But the key to Chase's performance is the slow burn he does as a father whose shortcomings mix with the repeated obstacles he faces to drive him slowly mad, which sets up the ending, which is so natural it's hard to believe it was the second option, created only after the original died in test screenings. Though most of his troubles are of his own making, you can't help but feel for him a bit.
Though Vacation is a fun, silly comedy, it's underlined by an ever-present darkness that's sold mainly through Chase, and it's hard to imagine someone doing a better job of it. The rest of the cast, including Beverly D'Angelo as the put-upon, but supportive wife (a perfect template for Modern Family's Claire), and Dana Barrow and Anthony Michael Hall as the daughter and son, who are two of the most natural kids to appear in a family comedy. Throw in some great cameos by Eugene Levy, John Candy, James Keach and Brian Doyle-Murray, and it's easy to see why with excellent actors and the talent of Ramis and Hughes, the disparate elements of the film come together better than they might otherwise. It's unlikely you'd get away with such a simple film and it's very politically incorrect tone these days, which is probably why the film keeps finding fans and remains popular today.
This movie arrives in a one-disc release, which is packed in a standard-width Blu-ray keepcase featuring the worst art the film has been released under yet. The disc features the usual Warner Brothers static menu offering a choice to watch the film, select scenes, adjust the set-up and check out the extras. Audio options include English, German and Spanish (Castellano and Latino), while subtitles are available in English SDH, French, German, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish and Spanish (Castellano and Latino.)
The 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer on this disc looks good overall, with the color coming across as appropriate with nice fleshtones (showing off how pale the kids look at the end) and black levels looking solid (though some night scenes do get a bit murky.) The level of high detail is rather high also, resulting in an impressively sharp image where the camera work allows it (some scenes, like the pool scene with Brinkley, seem to suffer from some focus issues.) There's a fine amount of grain to the film, but noise doesn't become an issue, and there are no obvious problems with digital distractions. The only real issue is a common one for older films getting quality transfers, as the matte paintings are extremely obvious now.
I never would have expected that a film as popular as National Lampoon's Vacation would not get a polish in terms of the audio, but this Blu-ray offers up only a respectful DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track. Admittedly, there aren't a lot of opportunities for aural acrobatics in the film, and the sound effects, music and dialogue all sounds solid, but with just one channel to work with, it's a bit lacking in power and obviously offers no depth. On the other hand, it's also lacking in problems, so there's not a lot to complain about either. (For anyone wondering, "I'm So Excited" is still missing from the first Brinkley scene.)
The extras start with a 10-year-old introduction by Chase, Quaid and Matty Simmons. Running just 44 seconds, it features a few of the usual above-it-all gags from Chase, and not much else. Things get better though in the audio commentary, carried over from the previous release, which includes Ramis, Chase, Quaid, Hall, Barron and Simmons. For the most part, it's all Ramis, with Chase chiming in more often than the others. The director has a good deal of info to share, and Chase is funnier than he's been in a long time. Considering how many people are in the room though, it's surprising how quiet the track gets in spots, as they get caught-up in watching the film (at one point they say nothing for nearly an entire scene.)
New to this 30th Anniversary Edition of the film is "Inside Story: National Lampoon's Vacation" a Biography Channel behind-the-scenes documentary that, at 1:34, is nearly as long as the actual film. New interviews were conducted with nearly all the key players (minus Quaid), including Ramis, Chase, D'Angelo, Hall, Barron, Levy, Krakowski and Brinkley (along with several cast members), and are mixed with archival photos and footage to tell the story of the production. The vast number of participants help reveal much about how the film came together, which includes some very interesting stories of the production's troubled path. Though there's a bit of overlap with the commentary and some repetition due to it being made for TV, there's more than enough to make this worth watching for any fan of the film.
The Bottom Line
Few stars have thrown away more goodwill than Chevy Chase, who was a huge comedy star in the ‘80s, only to become a pariah in recent years. But even so, watching one of his great triumphs like National Lampoon's Vacation is an experience that's immune from those bad feelings, as it remains a great time thanks to a dream team behind the camera and a hilarious cast in front. This refreshed Blu-ray release looks and sounds solid, and the extras were actually improved, making this an easy pick-up for those who have held out, though if you own the earlier one, an upgrade may not be necessary.