National Lampoon's Vacation: 20th Anniversary Special Edition
Warner Bros. // R // $19.98 // August 19, 2003
Review by Matthew Millheiser | posted August 14, 2003
Highly Recommended
E - M A I L
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The Movie

As a member of the "Holy Trinity" of Chevy Chase films (alongside Caddyshack and Fletch), National Lampoon's Vacation represents Chevy Chase at his all-around cinematic best. Of all the films listed on Chase's résumé, there is none other that encapsulates what makes Chase one of the best comedic talents of his era. To wit: for as much as I positively worship at the feet of Caddyshack, the film is basically a "Clash of the Titans" between Rodney Dangerfield's sarcastic, acerbic one-liners and the brilliant, seething slow-burn of the late, great Ted Knight. Fletch is a comedy classic, and Chase is almost pitch-perfect throughout the film, but his funnyman antics, physical comedy, piercing impersonations, and throwaway glibness seem slightly out-of-place when juxtaposed with the film's rather serious narrative.

So what makes National Lampoon's Vacation the quintessential Chevy Chase vehicle? Simply put: everything. Even if you remove Chase from the equation, the film boasts a promising pedigree. The film was directed by Harold Ramis, the SCTV-vet who was fresh off writing (and co-starring in) the Bill Murray smash Stripes, as well having been the writer/director behind Caddyshack and co-writer of Animal House. Ramis would also go on to direct Groundhog Day . Now let me repeat all that for effect: Stripes, Caddyshack, Animal House, and Groundhog Day. TBS owes their existence to this man, but I digress. The script was written by John Hughes, based on a short story he penned for National Lampoon magazine. This is the same John Hughes whose entire oeuvre would leave a lasting influence of a generation of movie-watchers; films like Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Pretty In Pink, and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles are his cinematic lineage. TBS owes 99.999% of their advertising revenue to this man... but again, I'm off on a tangent.

So National Lampoon's Vacation benefits from featuring both a writer and director who collectively have been responsible for some of the funniest, heavily referenced, and most-beloved comedies of the last twenty-five years. Plus it sports a strong supporting cast, featuring SCTV-vets Eugene Levy and John Candy, the brilliant television legend and comedienne Imogene Coca as the ghastly Aunt Edna, and other talented performers such as Randy Quaid, Brian Doyle-Murray, James Keach, future Miami Vicer John Diehl and future Ally McBeal cast member Jane Krakowski as the Daddy-frenching Cousin Vicki. And as the Griswold family, Anthony Michael-Hall and Dana Barron are the first (and best) pairing of Rusty and Audrey Griswold (each successive sequel would feature a new set of siblings, each worse than the last, and never as good as these two), while the voluptuously yummy Beverly D'Angelo remains the hottest Mom on the planet. OK,  while she does look beautiful from pretty much every angle, she also gives a great performance as Ellen Griswold; she really looks, acts, and sounds like a mother at every moment. As the steady, sensible (if occasionally irascible) mother, Ellen is the perfect foil and counterpoint to husband Clark 's wild antics.

All of which brings us to Chevy Chase in his career defining role: Clark W. Griswold. Family man. Devoted husband and loving father. Designer of newer and better food additives. He's beginning to realize that he doesn't spend enough time with his children, that they are growing up too quickly, and laments the loss of quality "family time." In light of this, he organizes a family vacation: a cross-country drive from Chicago to Southern California to see America, spend time together, and top it off with a trip to the most magical place in the world: Wally World, the theme park to beat all theme parks. Why not fly? To put it in Clark 's vernacular, "Because driving is half the fun!" In addition, it will allow him to spend more time with his wife and children.

In other words, he's pretty much like almost every loving father in existence... and that's what makes it so magical when Chevy Chase tackles the role. He's recognizable, but while the character of Clark Griswold is endearing and familiar to the audience, it is also the framework upon which Chase ladles his inspired tomfoolery. He gives the familiar figure of the overbearing Dad just that much more lunacy. Clark Griswold comes across as a bit of a schmo and a buffoon, but we love the character because aren't almost all Dads just like that when the family goes on vacation? I'd reckon that almost everyone has experienced that moment of dread mixed with affection when their father takes them miles out of the way to see "The World's Second Largest Ball of Twine", or whatever. It's tangible. It's real. National Lampoon's Vacation grabs hold of all the clichés that comprise the father-to-family dynamics, multiplies and magnifies them at an exponential rate, and tops it off with Chevy Chase at his best. His quips, his gestures and facial ticks, and his patented pratfalls all align together perfectly to create one of the greatest comedic performances ever laid on film.

National Lampoon's Vacation is a truly funny movie that touches on all that makes the concept of immediate family so unique and wonderful in the cosmos without ever getting mawkish about the entire deal. Twenty years after the film first graced theaters, it still holds up as both a comedic classic as well as a great family film (with a liberal amount of profanity, nudity, drugs, and the single greatest incest joke ever uttered on film.) Vacation spawned three sequels, each more horrible than the last (including the utterly over-praised Christmas Vacation, a film with a following of whom I will never understand), but for fans of the original classic, Warner's new 20th Anniversary DVD is pure platinum.


Widescreen at last! Previously available as a fullscreen-only DVD (ecch!), National Lampoon's Vacation is finally being presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 with a brand-new anamorphic transfer. The overall video is reasonably sharp, showing some fine image detail while occasionally interspersed with a few scenes that demonstrate some subtle but noticeable softness. Colors are bright and quite strong; the scene that displays the metallic-pea Family Truckster driving past Buckingham Fountain almost pops off the screen. Flesh tones are warm and natural looking. Grain structure is pretty strong, retaining the movie's fine film-like appearance. Contrast levels are deep, with solid blacks and fine shadow detail. I did notice occasional edge-enhancement and some minor compression noise throughout the transfer, but overall I was very pleased with the quality of the video.

The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 1.0. The monaural soundtrack is fine, with excellent dialog reproduction and a fine presentation of the score. I did not discern any noticeable hiss, distortion, or thinness, but one must be realistic: mono is mono. National Lampoon's Vacation is not the type of movie that is screaming for an aggressive, immersive audio experience, and overall I find no fault with the audio presentation.

Bring on the goodies! Stars Chevy Chase and Randy Quaid alongside producer Matty Simmons provide a 43-second Introduction to the film. The intro is completely ad-libbed and is not terribly interesting (it's highly doubtful you'd want to see it again anytime soon), but what the heck, I'd rather have it than not.

More interesting is the Griswold Family Commentary, featuring director Harold Ramis, producer Matty Simmons, stars Chevy Chase, Dana Barron, Anthony Michael-Hall, and Randy Quaid. The group was assembled for this commentary track, rather than having separate comments edited together, and the result is quite beneficial. The track is extremely lively and informative; it's absolutely clear that the group is having a great time revisiting the film. Ramis is particularly prevalent throughout the track, and provides a wealth of anecdotal material. Dana Barron is surprisingly active throughout, while Chevy provides some great laughs as well. Overall, this is quite a wonderful commentary.

The Family Truckster Interactive Feature is a bizarre little extra. By using your remote to highlight a specific section of the Family Truckster, you can view a short clip detailing a member of the Griswold family or one of the supporting characters. For example, if you select the luggage rack, you can view a minute-and-a-half of Aunt Edna highlights. Select the fender and you can watch Dana "Audrey" Barron explain why she was never in any of the sequels. The windshield gives you access to the Truckster Family Radio, showing five clips of the Griswold family singing in the Family Truckster ("Mockingbird", "Love For Sale", "The Wallyworld National Anthem", etc.) The Christy Brinkley montage is worth the price of admission alone.

Rounding out the supplements are the Theatrical Trailer and biographies of the Cast and Crew. Overall, while the extras are fine in and of themselves, I am disappointed by only one omission: the commentary track contains a thorough discussion of the film's original ending. That first ending, which was completely filmed, did not test well with audiences, and was subsequently reshot using the familiar second ending, which tested through the roof and remained in the film. That original ending should have been included here! Alas...

Final Thoughts

Revisiting National Lampoon's Vacation brings back a ton of memories. I was twelve years old when I saw this in theaters, and I saw my Dad in every single frame. Twenty years later, I see him even more! Vacation was a staple of HBO for years, moving on to the Turner channels where it has been a mainstay ever since. Watching the film on the 20th Anniversary DVD is almost like watching it again for the first time. The picture is remarkably sharp and vibrant, and the anamorphic widescreen presentation along with the uncut, unedited dialog give the movie a freshness that is very palpable. I've seen Vacation roughly 803,284 times in the last twenty years, and this DVD is the most fun I've had watching it since the first time.


There are so many classic lines, funny moments, and hilarious scenarios to mention. If you're a Vacation fan, the decision to purchase the 20th Anniversary DVD is a no-brainer. You simply must have it. If you've never seen the movie, or perhaps if you've only been exposed to the sub-par (and often substandard) sequels, the DVD also comes highly recommended. It's relatively inexpensive as far as DVDs go, and you are definitely getting your money's worth. For hardcore, longtime fans of the film, the commentary alone makes this DVD a must-buy. For the sexist pig reading this review, the DVD is even worth it just to see how amazingly hot Dana Barron has become, or how amazingly hot Christie Brinkley still is. Of course, Beverly D'Angelo's participation is missing from the DVD, which is too bad. As she played one of the greatest movie moms ever, repeating the role in three sequels, I would have loved to have listened to her thoughts on the project. Nonetheless, the National Lampoon's Vacation DVD is definitely a metallic pea Wagon Queen Family Truckster's worth of joy. Highly recommended!

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