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Christmas Story, A (HD DVD)

Warner Bros. // PG // December 5, 2006 // Region 0
List Price: $28.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted December 31, 2006 | E-mail the Author
There's something anticlimactic about driving a few hours to visit the family for the holidays, making the exhausting trip back home, and then finding a copy of A Christmas Story waiting for me in the mailbox. Reviewing A Christmas Story when most folks are taking down the tinsel and tossing the tree in the dumpster seems kinda pointless, but...whatever.

A Christmas Story isn't a movie; it's an institution. As far as live-action flicks go, at least, It's a Wonderful Life is the only film I can think of more closely associated with the holidays than Bob Clark's 1983 holiday classic. It's been making the rounds on cable unrelentingly for ages, and even after all these years, A Christmas Story still draws in tens of millions of eyeballs during its annual marathons. It's one of those movies that I can't not watch when I see it on -- the Christmas equivalent of Predator! -- and it never seems stale even my eight quadrillionth time through.

A Christmas Story doesn't have a plot in the sense of...y'know, a plot. Set in Indiana circa 1940 and based on stories by author Jean Shepherd, the movie consists of a series of vignettes revolving around the Parker family. The only thing Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) wants for Christmas is an official Red Ryder carbine-action, two hundred shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time. They are very good for Christmas, as Ralphie writes his teacher, but everyone he excitedly tells frowns that he'll shoot his eye out. The rest of the Parker family includes a picky eater (Ian Petrella) so overswaddled that he can't move his arms, a foul-mouthed father who's constantly duking it out with the furnace, and a well-meaning mother (Melinda Dillon) who hasn't had a hot meal in fifteen years.

Some movies have lines or individual moments that have crept into pop culture, but literally just about every scene in A Christmas Story has clawed its way into the public consciousness. Ralphie climbing up the slide at a department store to tell Santa what he really wants for Christmas. Ralphie not saying "Oh, fudge." and facing a mouthful of soap. Flick taking a triple-dog dare to see if his tongue will stick to a flagpole. Ralphie squaring off against the school bully. Pops' pride in winning a major award: a lamp in the sultry shape of a woman's leg. Mom duping Randy into wolfing down his meatloaf by eating like a pig. Ralphie modeling a Christmas present from an aunt who's forgotten his age and, um, gender.

A Christmas Story is just perfect: Jean Shepherd's narration as an adult Ralphie, the cynical but sweet Midwestern mundanity of the Parker family, its quirky sense of humor, an endearing cast, and, of course, how relatable Ralphie's plight is. The word "classic" gets thrown around pretty loosely these days, but A Christmas Story is a movie whose enduring appeal over the past twenty-someodd years has more than earned it. Highly Recommended.

Video: It's a safe bet that pretty much everyone reading this has only seen A Christmas Story on TV or on older home video releases with the mattes tossed aside, but this HD DVD presents the movie in its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1.

I've read some grousing on a few message boards that this HD DVD doesn't look any better than Warner's 2003 DVD release, but maybe their glasses got knocked off by an icicle from the garage or something. Sure, quite a few scenes do have a softer, diffused look to 'em, several stretches such as Ralphie's pop changing a flat tire are awfully grainy, its palette is on the subdued side, and there's a noticeable drop in image quality whenever Bob Clark tosses in an optical effect. Still, I was surprised by how crisp A Christmas Story frequently was, and there's no way I could ever mistake sharp, smooth, nicely detailed scenes like Flick sticking his tongue on the flagpole or Ralphie waking up on Christmas morning for a standard definition DVD. It's not overflowing with detail and doesn't have the sort of three-dimensional, peeking-out-a-window look most gearheads lean towards, but this HD DVD is a pretty hefty step up, and ignore anyone who tells you otherwise.

Audio: A Christmas Story's Dolby Digital Plus 1.0 audio sounds pretty spiffy. The movie's so heavily driven by its endlessly quotable dialogue that it doesn't really cry out for a flashy multichannel remix, and the narration and line readings are rendered cleanly and clearly. Dynamic range is reasonably robust for this kind of movie, and the soundtrack isn't marred by any hiss or distortion. It's not the type of audio that redefines the way you look at home theater or anything, and having a full-bodied center channel certainly helps, complaints.

There's also a monaural French dub along with the usual assortment of subtitles.

Supplements: A Christmas Story includes nearly all of the extras from the 2003 special edition DVD, with only the interactive trivia and the decoder match challenge not making the cut. None of the bells and whistles are in high-def, but most of them are at least in anamorphic widescreen.

One extra -- accessible through a radio-shaped menu -- features Jean Shepherd reading two of the stories that had been incorporated into A Christmas Story. It's to the movie's credit how closely they match these readings of "Flick's Tongue" and "The Red Ryder Story", and the audio runs just under 40 minutes in total.

The disc's audio commentary pairs director/co-writer Bob Clark with star Peter Billingsley. It's a relaxed but endearing discussion of the movie, with Billingsley able to reflect on A Christmas Story with adult eyes, and both he and Clark are rightly proud of the movie they made. Billingsley almost serves as a moderator for the commentary, tossing a few questions Clark's way to keep the chatter moving. Clark talks about the movie's successful but unduly short theatrical run, its enormous success on television, and what, if anything, he'd change if he could do it all over again. Clark also comments on how Jack Nicholson was considered for the role of Ralphie's old man, how Porky's was integral to getting A Christmas Story off the ground, and halfway-standing up a date because he was so enthralled with one of Jean Shepherd's stories. There are some silent stretches, but overall, I really enjoyed it.

Billingsley appears again with Clark and several of his young co-stars in the retrospective "Another Christmas Story" (18 min.). It's pleasant enough but kind of redundant after listening to the audio commentary, and the only material that's not covered in the commentary track is the actors talking about the impact the movie has had on their lives, the pranks they pulled in their hotel, and their favorite/least favorite/most wanted Christmas presents. I still found it worth a look just because the actors are so Goshdarn likeable.

There are two featurettes that each run around five minutes in length. The first is "Daisy Red Ryder: A History" which covers the history of the Daisy air gun and the role of the as-of-then unproduced model used in A Christmas Story. The other is the kinda obnoxious "Get a Leg Up", which has the DVD's producer smugly asking the makers of the Leg Lamp if they think they've changed the course of human history or whatever. The Leg Lamp gets another plug with a short ad, and there's also a widescreen theatrical trailer.

A few script pages were hidden as an Easter egg on the DVD, and they're offered here without any menu trawling. These deleted scenes (which were filmed but not provided in any other form on this HD DVD) include a fantasy sequence as Ralph scrawls his Christmas essay which leads into a battle with Flash Gordon against Ming the Merciless.

You'd think that since A Christmas Story was one of Warner's final HD DVD releases of the year, they'd get around to swapping out the insert promising The Matrix, The Shawshank Redemption, and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in "Summer 2006!", but maybe next year...

Conclusion: Sure, you could watch A Christmas Story for free on TBS, but this HD DVD presents the holiday classic in its original aspect ratio without commercials and in high-def to boot. A Christmas Story is endlessly rewatchable, although needless to say, you're probably better off waiting to pick up a copy before the holidays have come and gone. Highly Recommended.
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Highly Recommended

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