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Adult Ralphie: Meanwhile, I struggled for exactly the right BB gun hint. It had to be firm, but subtle.
DVD ReviewThe DVD Review and Extras Review are by Joel Cunningham. The HD DVD is unaccountably 25 seconds longer than the SD version.
A Christmas Story is, improbably, one of those movies that just about everyone who celebrates Christmas has seen countless times. I say improbably because it didn't make much of an impact when it was released to theaters 25 years ago (distributors, in their infinite wisdom, pulled it from theaters right before Christmas) and because its period setting and homespun narrative (it's like watching "Prairie Home Companion: The Movie") wouldn't seem likely to appeal to the masses that made National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation a perennial favorite.
But somehow, through countless showings on cable TV and monster sales on VHS, A Christmas Story became a classic, and in more houses than just mine, an annual tradition. Now that I've finally seen it properly, in widescreen, I'd like to say that I have a new appreciation for the film or some new insights to share. But no—it's still the same movie, and still immensely satisfying.
I think it works because its Depression-era setting lends to it timelessness for modern audiences. The plot, such as it is, moves along through a series of vignettes in the life of Ralphie (Peter Billingsley), a young boy living in Indiana (though the state is never identified by name). Adult Ralphie (author Jean Shepherd, upon whose memoirs the film is based) narrates wonderfully. Ralphie really, really wants a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas (never mind that people keep telling him he'll shoot his eye out) and he frequently fantasizes about how his life will change if only his wish comes true. Which is basically how I remember feeling about every toy I ever wanted. Ralphie's father (Darren McGavin) has a hot temper and a loud mouth (seems familiar). His mother (Melinda Dillon) is sweet to her kids but won't hesitate to stick a bar of soap in their mouths if they're naughty (my mom yelled more, but then, this employment of soap was out of style by the time I was born). And his brother Randy (Ian Patrella) is very, very annoying. But I suppose you'd have to ask my brother if that's an accurate familial representation.
There are so many memorable moments: The leg lamp Ralphie's father wins and proudly displays in the window ("Electric sex!"), and which his mother despises. Ralphie's encounters with the town bully. Mom's efforts to get Randy to eat, or get into his snowsuit, or stop whining. "Oh, fudge." Ralphie's unfortunate gift from an un-favorite relative. Pick your favorite—this is a movie with no bad scenes.
What makes it such a hard film to review is that it's somehow greater than the sum of its parts. The performances are pretty good (the parents are especially well cast), but certainly not outstanding or iconic, except in their universality. Bob Clark's direction is serviceable, though his background in broad comedy (Porky's) is sometimes glaringly obvious when he tries too hard to hit a joke. The real credit goes to Shepherd, whose wry sense of humor and sharp eye for the comedy inherent in mundane family life makes A Christmas Story a true classic—a film that hasn't aged a day in 25 years, and never will.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: While this movie was released several times in pan & scan versions, in 2003 a proper widescreen version was finally released, and it had some issues with with its transfer. Despite some shortcomings in the original source material, the HD version is a huge improvement, starting with the beautifully vivid and crisp red main titles. The movie is shot in a persistent soft focus (especially in the fantasy sequences), and this comes across quite well, but textures are lovely. Some more cleanly-shot moments, such as the window display with the Red Ryder gun, are very detailed and look marvelous. There is still quite a lot of grain; one sequence with the leg lamp looks as if it may have been optically blown up. But the grain is well-rendered and not sparkly at all, except in that one sequence. Black levels are excellent, marking a major improvement, but by comparison to the standard DVD this just jumps right off the screen. While the original review of the two-disc edition suggested that that was "probably the best it can look," happily there was plenty of room for improvement and that comes across marvelously on this HD rendition. Once you watch this picture in HD, it's hard to look at it in standard format again.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: English and French mono DD+ tracks are provided. They sound perfectly fine, without any significant noise or hiss. The soundtrack cleverly makes use of a number classical pieces familiar to children, such as On the Trail and Peter and the Wolf, and these sound very nice, with range that doesn't disappoint. It's by no means flashy, but it doesn't disappoint.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasAnimated menu
Scene Access with 32 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Peter Billingsley and director Bob Clark
A Christmas Story is certainly a film that is incredibly popular—so much so that one cable station shows it for 24 hours straight on Christmas—and the original DVD was incredibly lacking. Sad to say, this release is too. There are exactly two worthwhile features.
The first is the commentary on Disc One with director Bob Clark and actor Peter Billingsley (Ralphie). It's a good track, if a little low-key. The two are proud of the film and a little awed by its impact and lasting popularity, and they discuss making it without descending into mutual backslapping. It's also nice to hear Billingsley's adult perspective on something he made when he was 12. The disc also includes a scratchy theatrical trailer.
The other worthwhile bonus is from Jean Shepherd, author of the books upon which A Christmas Story is based, who presents two radio readings of short essays ("Flick's Tongue" and "The Red Ryder Story"). They are pretty similar to what shows up on film, but entertaining nonetheless.
The rest of the extras are, quite honestly, annoying and a total waste of time. The 17-minute retrospective featurette Another Christmas Story tries to spice up dull interviews with the cast (including nearly all of the child actors) and director Bob Clark with an irritating "Night Before Christmas" theme and some weird Pop-Up Video effects. The actor who played the bully, Farkus (Zack Ward), made me want to repeatedly punch either the TV or myself, whichever method blocked out the sound more quickly.
Two phony featurettes fill up space. Get a Leg Up features DVD producer J.M. Kenny's journey to the factory where they make the famous Leg Lamps. He tries to be funny by asking the clueless factory workers questions like, "Do you think of yourselves as heroes?" but it doesn't really work. At all. The HD DVD also includes an tongue-in-cheek ad for the leg lamp factory. A little better is A History of the Daisy Red Ryder, a visit to the factory that makes the famous BB gun. But somehow, even at five minutes, it manages to be boring.
Yeah, the extras are disappointing on the whole, but at least there is a good commentary.
Extras Grade: C-
Final CommentsThankfully none of Bob Clark's holiday slasher movie sensibility from Black Christmas comes across in this perennial classic. The HD transfer makes the standard definition disc look downright dismal by comparison, so those who love this movie may want to do another upgrade.
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