I can remember back to my Junior and Senior High School days back in the Eighties. "A Christmas Story" was one of my favorite films to watch around Christmastime, but it was a cult film that not too many people had seemingly heard of. I had a friend that had an old VHS copy of the movie and we would sit back and laugh our arses off at Bob Clark's entertaining holiday opus detailing 1940s America and one youngster's hopeful wish of getting a Red Ryder BB Gun for Christmas. This film was easily the funniest holiday movie I could think of and I loved it. It always seemed odd that nobody else seemed to enjoy it as much. Fast forward nearly twenty years and "A Christmas Story" is finally mainstream. This year, there were television commercials for major retailers that used footage from the film. It finds television airplay and the film is easily accessible at any quality video retailer. It took time, but "A Christmas Story" is finally a bona-fide classic.
"A Christmas Story" takes place in Indiana during the 1940s. Young Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) wants nothing more than a Red Ryder 200-shot Carbine Action Air Rifle - a BB gun. Unfortunately, his parents and pretty much everybody else squashes his dreams by telling him he simply will shoot his eye out. His father (Darren McGavin) and mother (Melinda Dillon) are very quick to dismiss him and his wish and are far more focused on other Christmas time happenings around the Parker household. Mom Parker wraps up younger brother Randy (Ian Petrella) in multiple layers and the young boy can hardly walk under so much clothing. She is quick to offer Ralphie a tasty bar of soap after he curses and kicks the snot out of Scut Farkus (Zack Ward). Dad Parker curses colorfully and battles both the furnace and his wife's dislike of his ultimate prize - the infamous leg lamp.
Ralphie dreams of adventures fighting Black Bart (Dwayne McLean) and his gang with his Red Ryder BB gun. He pictures himself the hero and where he is treated like a spot on a wall by many others, he envisions the BB gun as the Christmas present that will completely change his life. In school, he composes a paper that argues how the Red Ryder is the best present imaginable and that a football is not a very good present. His result is a lowly C+ grade. Even the department store Santa tells him he will shoot his eye out and cruelly dismisses him. Ralphie's disappointment comes not just from his long string of disappointments in getting validation for his Christmas wish, but from other aspects of life and events. A super secret decoder ring from Little Orphan Annie turns out to be nothing more than an add for Ovaltine. While helping his father change a spare tire, he loses the lug-nuts and tosses out more curse words and awaits further punishment. Things just do not go well for Ralphie.
I watched "A Christmas Story" just after watching "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" and saw some parallels, but feel my belief that this is a far superior film has been validated. The Parker's find their Christmas wishes dashed with a series of unfortunate events as the Griswolds do. The neighbor's dogs run away with the Christmas turkey. A big Christmas prize turns out to be a horrendous leggy lamp that Mr. Parker wants to put into the front window, much to the chagrin of his wife. They end up eating dinner at a Chinese restaurant and listening to the caroling of "Fa Ra Ra Ra Ra." There are near disasters and problems resulting from the Christmas tree. Family outings are not as smooth as they had hoped for. The family in "A Christmas Story" is almost as dysfunctional as the Griswolds and levels of incompetence not nearly as high, but certainly evident.
This film contains far more serious and better written comedy than "Christmas Vacation" and continues to deliver laughs after numerous viewings. The characters are perfectly played by the actors. Darren McGavin could not have done a better job as Mr. Parker and young Peter Billingsley was spot on as Ralphie. The whole Parker family felt like a real family and watching this 1983 representation of 1940s Indiana was so beautifully done, it is hard to remember it was not made during the era it represents. With this film being so well acted, so wonderfully written and so damn funny, I still don't see why it took twenty years for it to be a well-known and well-loved classic.
Even before putting "A Christmas Story" into my Samsung BD-P1000 player (the last disc to do so, as the Samsung is being retired), I was fully prepared for a film that would not blow my socks off the chimney. The film's dreamy sequences look as though vaseline was coated on the lens and give a soft look that helps the film achieve its period feel and gives it a flavor that is both dreamlike and almost like watching a moving scrapbook. The 1.85:1 widescreen transfer looks pretty good and clean and even when the source materials do not allow for a lot of detail, it is an improvement over my older standard definition DVD release. Where soft and washed out in the 'dreamlike' sequences, "A Christmas Story" does allow for a few highly detailed scenes that are certainly only capable via a high definition transfer. One particular scene of memory was when trees where shown with ice and snow on their branches. It was wonderfully detailed and three dimensional in imagery. Black levels are good and although there is some film grain source materials looked to have been of good stock. I was satisfied with this transfer, but admittedly, there were a few scenes that looked only slightly better than the older DVD release.
It is hard to say too much about the English Dolby Digital 1.0 mono soundtrack. It sounds clear and clean, but sound only emminates from the center channel. With a little tomfoolery, I was able to get sound from all three front speakers, but this hardly yielded any beneficial results other than a larger soundspace. The range of the mono track was quite good, but heavy bass and sharp highs were absent and a flat feeling was quite apparent. I would have loved for something a little better sounding from this release, but the original mono track is the best we are given. A French mono soundtrack is also provided.
All of the extras from Warner Bros. 2-disc special edition have been carried over to the Blu-Ray release (as well as the HD-DVD release). Though not the most plentiful or exciting set of bonus materials, there are a few notable moments to be found and the overall quality is both entertaining and good. The Commentary by Peter Billingsley and Director/Co-Writer Bob Clark is good with the two sharing stories over their experiences on the making of the film and reminiscing about the good old times. It is not the best commentary you will hear and Billingsley seems distant through some of it, but fans of the film will find it to be an enjoyable listen.
A few documentaries are also provided in addition to the commentary track. The 20th Anniversary Documentary Another Christmas Story runs for nearly twenty minutes and finds many of the cast recounting their experiences from the making of the film. You certainly get the impression that Scott Schwartz loves his minor celebrity status as a result of the film, but he is lively and entertaining. Peter Billingsley still looks like Ralphie. Bob Clark also joins in on the fun. This was one of the better and more entertaining documentaries I've seen in a while. The Daisy Red Ryder: A History takes a look at the Red Ryder BB gun and offers insight into the inaccurate edition used in the film. Get a Leg Up is a tongue-in-cheek interview with a company that continues to make the Leg Lamps. They are asked questions about being American heroes and whatnot. Odd, but funny. A Theatrical Trailer and Leg Lamp Promotional Clip are tossed in as well as a few Script Pages.
"A Christmas Story" is a modern holiday classic that is easily the funniest yuletide picture available. Even though Turner Broadcasting's 24 hour marathon may be a bit much, they helped bring the film to prominence, but you can now find it available in both modern high definition formats. The Blu-Ray release features decent picture and adequate sound, but the low budget underpinnings of the source materials do not allow for much excitement in the sound and audio departments. The value added content is exactly the same content from the 2-disc special edition released a couple years ago on standard definition DVD. With the actors doing such great jobs in their roles and a well written story by Jean Shepherd, Leigh Brown and Bob Clark, "A Christmas Story" is the kind of film you can watch again and again.