For the most part, I fully agree with what my friend and colleague John J. Puccio stated in his review for the HD-DVD release of "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation." The film is at times an exercise in vulgarity and unevenness. I honestly was never a fan of the film and can watch it every so many years and can not sit down and enjoy it every holiday season, or as John said "one or two times is enough." While "Christmas Vacation" is one of the better entries in the "National Lampoon's Vacation" series and the film easily trumps the horrendous later entries in the tired franchise, this was a downturn from the excellent original Chevy Chase picture, but for some it has become a yuletide institution.
In "Christmas Vacation," Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) is put into a position where both his parents and his in-laws are going to spend Christmas together in his home. The two sets of parents mix about as well as oil and water and Clark is the match to his in-laws 'oil.' Clark decides that regardless of the situation, he is going to try his absolute hardest to have the best old-fashioned holiday he can muster. Of course, this involves the placing and a few hundred thousand lights on his house and a few other over-the-top decisions that are much to the chagrin of his wife Ellen (Beverly D'Angelo) and his children (Johnny Galecki and Juliette Lewis) and not necessarily to the best wishes of his other guests. In "National Lampoon" tradition, everything quickly follows Murphy's Law and Clark's Christmas becomes more tragedy and mishap than it does celebratory.
Things get even worse when Clark's cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) parks his Winnebago in the driveway and announces he will be spending the Christmas holiday and much of the next month with them. Eddie is a wonderful example of human white trash and a despicable and detestable man who dumps toxic waste into the sewer system while smoking a cigar and standing in his bathrobe and boxers. Eddie's children are far from intelligent and far from being taken care of. Eddie is a disaster and his presence alone is enough to help insure that Clark's Christmas plans will be a disaster. Eddie is foul, disgusting and a character that does nothing but introduce "Potty Humor" to the film. Flatulence, filth and other jokes pertaining to body functions are the flavor of Quad's character. How Christmassy, eh?
There are so many hit and miss moments in "Christmas Vacation," that I have always had some trouble sitting back and enjoying the film to the same degree as "A Christmas Story." I laugh at times and find myself conflicted as to whether or not I enjoy the Eddie character or am disturbed by his screen time. The flat and deceased cat was decidedly unfunny and unnecessary for this film, but the forgotten and unseen squirrel in the Christmas tree was good fun. I love squirrel jokes. You can never quite get enough of them. Chevy Chase is perfectly cast as Clark and he alone helped putting people in the seats when this series had its theatrical run and years later, he remains pretty much the only reason to sit back and watch these films. Juliette Lewis is a whiny bore and Johnny Galecki is hardly memorable. The children from the first film were far superior.
A few plotlines feel completely unnecessary and just add too much weight to the plot of a film that is supposed to be a yuletide laughfest. The Christmas bonus subplot could have been sprung earlier, as the audience could assume things wouldn't go well for Clark. Some attempts at warmth are tossed in with brevity and we see Clark locked in the cold attic and watching old home movies. Touching, but just adds to the unevenness of "Christmas Vacation." The pool dream sequence helped drown the film with the bonus check subplot and paid homage to the original film's pool sequence. Considering the low brow humor brought on by Randy Quaid, one would assume the filmmakers weren't too concerned with keeping this as a fully family friendly film. The pool scene seems more like an misplaced and misguided tease than an attempt to further link this film with its predecessor.
I can sit back and watch "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" every so many years. There are a few sequences that I still do find myself laughing about. However, another little Christmastime comedy written by John Hughes is something I enjoy far better - the original "Home Alone." My opinion is that if you want to enjoy the Clark Griswold character and the wonderful performance by Chevy Chase, find the original "National Lampoon's Vacation" and watch that. If you want to enjoy some Joyous Noel humor, then the aforementioned "Home Alone" and "A Christmas Story" are better selections. Of course, I'm old school and would rather watch old Rankin/Bass stop-animation films than pretty much anything else around Christmas. "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" has a strong fanbase, I'm just not part of it.
"National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" has been released on standard definition DVD for quite some time now. I passed over purchasing the film because it was available only in a full frame transfer. I'm a widescreen fanatic and this was not acceptable. The film was eventually released in widescreen, but never made it to my collection. If my memory serves me correctly, the film was only available in a 1.33:1 transfer on my beloved LaserDisc format as well. So, with the advent of high definition home video formats, I have finally aquired a widescreen transfer of the film. On Blu-Ray, "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" is formatted properly at 1.85:1 widescreen. Unfortunately, "Christmas Vacation" is not entirely a picture that translates well to HD.
Throught the film, the picture is soft and grainy. There are certainly times when the image is quite sharp and stunning, but I was disappointed with the release. Digging into the technical side of things, black levels were fine, colors were nicely saturated, but not as vibrant as one would hope. I thought the picture looked flat overall and if I had the standard definition release, I would expect viewing that upconverted to high definition would yield results not too far from the Blu-Ray title. The source materials are not the cleanest. The gritty texture given by the heavy film grain is added to by some specks and other visual flaws. This is visually one of the least impressive Blu-Ray titles I have yet to pay witness to.
The soundtrack for "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" is another disappointment. Provided in basic Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo. Under standard processing, this placed sound information in only the left and rear speakers. Pressing the THX button on my Denon receiver brought a bit more life to the film and added the center channel to the fray, but for those without a similar capability, "Christmas Vacation" is going to be a flat and unenthusiast sounding disc. Credit must be given that the sound is clear and dialogue is intelligable and at higher volumes, when the sound can gel together from left to right, it isn't too bad sounding, but at nighttime viewing levels, one may be underwhelmed. In the age of multichannel 5.1 sound, "Christmas Vacation" sound awfully old-school, even for a seventeen year old film.
Warner Bros. does leave one present under your tree with "Christmas Vacation." This edition does port the same features from the "Special Edition" standard definition release, but that edition was hardly special. A Commentary by Randy Quaid, Beverly D'Angelo, Johnny Galecki, Miriam Flynn, director Jeremiah Chechik and Producer Matty Simmons is an ensemble commentary that does have a lot of people involved, but is more reminiscing than informative. If you look through the extensive list of names involved with the commentary, you will quickly notice that Chevy Chase is absent. That about sums up the feeling of the commentary. No Chevy Chase. That is a disappointment. Other than the commentary track, a Theatrical Trailer is included. One gets the feeling somebody was being a little Grinchy with this release.
Yeah, I do laugh a little bit when I watch "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" and I do love that squirrel in the tree. There are times when I would applaud Randy Quaid's inclusion in this film and there are times when I loath the decision. Chevy Chase is as clumsily charming as always in this film and there lies the only real reason to watch the movie. Growing up, we jokingly called my one set of neighbors the Griswold's because of their overly white lit home. They now resort to the detestable icicle lights and a little Christmas magic died when they stopped going overboard on their lights. Once you watch "Christmas Vacation," the next time you view it, a little magic will be gone as well. This is a comedy that is best seen the first time, but hard to revisit. Fortunately, my Christmas care package from Warner Bros. also included "A Christmas Story."