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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (Widescreen Special Edition)
National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (Widescreen Special Edition)
Warner Bros. // PG-13 // October 7, 2003
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted September 22, 2003 | E-mail the Author
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"Is there a great demand for 1.85 Flat Comedies to be seen widescreen?"
- a Warner Bros. representative regarding re-releases of the Vacation flicks on DVD, from a Home Theater Forum chat, 10/16/02

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation was one of Warner's earlier releases, hitting stores back in 1997 before it became clear to the major studios that full-frame presentations of widescreen films were strictly verboten. Message boards were littered with posts over the following years inquiring about the possibility of a re-release of the Vacation flicks in their original aspect ratio. Christmas Vacation was a DVD that had been on my "t'buy" list for years, but because I'm kind of an OAR zealot, it kept getting bumped further and further down the list as time went on. No need to settle for a full-frame disc now, though -- the original Vacation was given the widescreen treatment in August, and both Christmas Vacation and Vegas Vacation are being re-released with spiffy new transfers on October 7th.

Following the headaches of his family's trips to Wally World and Europe, Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) has decided to sit this vacation out. Clark wants to spend a peaceful Christmas at home with his family, but Christmas Vacation would be an excruciatingly dull 97 minutes if things actually went according to plan for the Griswolds. Clark refuses to settle for anything less than perfection, driving dozens of miles out of the way in search of a tree that has no hope of fitting in his living room, stapling strands of 25,000 lights across seemingly every square inch of the family homestead, and shelling out thousands upon thousands of dollars for a new swimming pool for his beloved wife and children. Between his bonus check from work becomes increasingly delayed and the arrival of even more destructive, ungrateful family members than he'd anticipated, Clark's sanity is hanging on by a thread.

It had been quite a few years since I last caught Christmas Vacation, a movie I once fawned over and, not being much of an It's a Wonderful Life fan, made it a point to watch every year 'round Christmas time. I'm not sure if my tastes have just become much more sophisticated since then (the answer, for those wise enough to not read my reviews on a regular basis, is "no"), if I've become impatient, disinterested in sitting through most of the movie to get to my favorite parts, or if a particularly warm afternoon in late September isn't the ideal time to give an X-Mas-themed flick a spin, but Christmas Vacation didn't entirely live up to my memories of the film. There are still numerous solid laughs, but wading through some of the more boring stretches was almost a chore, and the first half-hour in particular had me fighting the urge to repeatedly whack the 'Skip Chapter' button on my DVD remote. Oh, but when it works... No matter how many times I see Clark roar down a hill on his massively-lubricated makeshift sled, his quest to illuminate the Griswold family home with tens of thousands of not-twinkling lights, vaporized family pets, and Clark's lengthy, profanity-drenched tirades, Christmas Vacation frequently keeps me in stitches. It's not a laff-a-minute movie, though, and even if that's by design, the distribution of killer material is more uneven than it should be. It wouldn't have take much additional polishing to keep Christmas Vacation moving at a steadier clip by filling out some of those slower sequences with an additional gag or two. I still really like the movie, and I'd absolutely consider it to be a substantially above-average comedy, but my enthusiasm seems to have tapered off from where it was in high school and college. I'll have to give it a look closer to the holidays and see if I feel the same way.

More than likely, anyone reading this review already has a clear opinion about the movie and doesn't really care what I'm blathering on about. This re-release of National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation features a new anamorphic widescreen transfer as well as an audio commentary, and I'll skip my semi-coherent rants about the movie and delve into those technical aspects right now.

Video: Only National Lampoon's European Vacation was spared from the full-frame treatment when the Vacation flicks first made the rounds on DVD. Fans have been clamoring for widescreen releases for years now, and their wishes...prayers...blood-drenched threatening letters...whatever...have been answered with this 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation. The great majority of Christmas Vacation looks solid -- crisp, detailed, and colorful, with next to nothing in the way of print flaws or authoring nasties. Film grain is present to greatly varying degrees throughout, with some of its earlier moments engulfed by the buzzing grain. Softness also sneaks in intermittently, and an example of the sparse edge haloing is provided to the right. Still, these don't detract heavily from what is overall a reasonably nice presentation.

Audio: I'm not sure if the Dolby Digital 2.0 surround soundtrack (192Kbps) is a carryover from the previous release or not. The bulk of the action is anchored front and center, but there's quite a bit of activity in the rears, moreso than a lot of comedies with discrete 5.1 mixes. From reinforcing music throughout to sound effects like creaking trucks, feet crunching into snow, the flinging limbs of the Griswolds' tree, and Sparky's skidding sled, the matrixed surrounds are used often and effectively. Bass response is limited, mostly because the material has little need for it. The film's dialogue comes through fine, though at times its age is apparent. Definitely decent.

Among the other audio options are a monaural French dub, subtitles in English, French, and Spanish, and closed captions.

Supplements: As welcome as this re-released DVD is, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation doesn't really have enough in the way of extras to warrant the "Special Edition" banner plastered on its cover. The only notable supplement is an audio commentary with director Jeremiah S. Chechik, producer Matty Simmons, and actors Beverly D'Angelo, Miriam Flynn, Johnny Galecki, and Randy Quaid. It's not the most chatty commentary -- there are several lengthy pauses throughout -- and even when the participants are talking, they don't seem to be saying all that much. Lotsa pauses, lotsa notes from Beverly D'Angelo about her hairstyles, and lots and lotsa laughter... Looking through my notes, the only interesting bits I decided to jot down were that the film was cut on a Moviola, there was an earthquake during the filming of one scene, and a trained squirrel didn't live long enough to spring into action. Not a terribly interesting commentary.

The "Cast & Crew" feature just spouts off a list of names for each group. Rounding out the extras is a theatrical trailer (2:24), presented in anamorphic widescreen at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and sporting Dolby Digital 2.0 audio (192Kbps).

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation comes packaged in a keepcase with a "Happy Holidays from the Griswolds" Christmas ornament tucked into the shrinkwrap. The DVD features a set of 16x9-enhanced animated menus, and the movie has been divided into twenty-nine chapters.

Conclusion: DVD enthusiasts that have spent the past few years waiting for a widescreen version of National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation can finally take the plunge with this release, and this new transfer and the audio commentary may convince owners of the current full-frame DVD to toss out that disc and upgrade. I'm not quite as enthusiastic about Christmas Vacation now as I was a few years back, but it's still a funny movie that's certain to get a spin at least once a year around the holidays. Recommended.
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