Like Santa Himself, Warner Bros' Christmas Story Update Flew Under Folks' Radars

Physical media may be dying, but I think A Christmas Story is going to be one of the very last titles to go.  Every December, all the Best Buys, Walmarts and Targets across the country put it back up on the shelves, even local supermarkets.  Tons of people have seen, and truly love this film.  But I think even many of its most ardent devotees are unaware that Warner Brothers quietly updated their blu-ray release for one particular, collectible edition, which they since washed over with a series of repackagings of older, lesser discs.  In fact, since its earliest days on disc, there have essentially been 5 different versions of the film itself; and the best one seems to be the least distributed of all.
I can still vividly picture the trailer and television commercials, specifically the image of Santa kicking the lead kid in the face for daring to ask for the wrong present, and how transgressive the whole thing felt.  If I ever had the wherewithal at that age to put together that A Christmas Story was by Bob Clark, the writer/ director of Porky's - a.k.a. the number one most shockingly pornographic, whispered-about films on our school grounds - it all would have come together like a perfect epiphany.  "Of course!  Now it all makes sense."  Of course, unlike Porky's, I actually got my parents to take me to see A Christmas Story, and it wound up becoming a family favorite.  I mean, to the point that my parents would play Jean Shepherd tapes in the car on vacations, watch him on television, and play Christmas Story every December to this very day.  Consequently, I cannot stand to watch a single frame of this film anymore and have actually only gotten all these screenshots and everything from the various editions my family owns or has owned.  Because I will leave the room at the first intonations of Sheperd's voice like it's a dog whistle, it's all just been so overplayed over my lifetime.  But I don't blame that on the film; and I understand, objectively, it's probably pretty great.
It's a bit shamelessly nostalgic, and it heavily relies on that sort of bland relatability from trite family moments that are so cliche you're not sure if they're actually resonating with your actual lived experience, or just your experience of seeing them in a million other pieces of media before.  You know, that Father Of the Bride, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Dave Berg's Lighter Side Of "oh boy, teenage daughters sure spend a lot of time talking on the phone!" schtick.  And in retrospect, it might be a tiny bit racist.  But there's also a lovely madness to the film: a young boy whose one wish is to shoot people, larger than life bullies, daydreams that twist into nightmares, painful childhood recollections, riffs on the corporatization of American culture ("drink... your... Ovaltine?!") and ritual humiliation.  All the performances are iconic, right down to the bit parts.  I really wish I could watch this with fresh eyes again.

Now, I said there are 5 versions of Christmas Story on DVD/ Blu, and in terms of what's actually on disc, that's 100% true, and we're about to explore each one in depth.  But there have actually been a slew of alternate Christmas Story releases over the years where nothing but the packaging's changed.  There was the original 1997 DVD, fullscreen and barebones, released by MGM before the rights went to Warners.  Then WB put out a 2-disc 20th Anniversary special edition DVD in 2003 in a fancy red slipbox, which included an alternate fullscreen transfer and a widescreen transfer.  Those are the first 3 of the aforementioned 5 versions, the other two are on blu.  But in between there was also:
  • The same fullscreen transfer as MGM, still barebones, but now from Warner Bros, released in 2000, in a snapper case
  • The old fullscreen version reissued in 2006 in a regular case
  • The 2-disc set 2008 reissue in a white slipcover
  • A Target exclusive Limited Edition Holiday Giftpack that paired the old fullscreen version with its disappointing sequel, A Christmas Story 2
  • A Christmas Comedy Collection that pairs the old fullscreen version with Elf and Christmas Vacation
  • A String of Holiday Classics set that packs the old fullscreen version with DVDs of Jack Frost and The Year Without Santa Claus 
  • A Holiday Family Collection that pairs the widescreen version with Happy Feet and The Polar Express
  • A 2003 2-disc set boxed with a Ralphie bobblehead
  • A 2008 Ultimate Collectors' Edition that put the 2-disc set in a limited edition tin with a recipe book, a chef's apron and photo prints
  • A limited slipcover edition with a Walmart-exclusive postcard inside
  • A 2018 limited slipcover edition of the old fullscreen version with a snow globe pop-up
  • A (I think widescreen?) 2019 DVD packaged with a cookie cutter and Funko pop keychain

...And probably one or two more I've missed.  And that's just in the United States alone.  Then come the blu-rays.  First released in 2006, it's naturally version #4 as the first HD entry.  That disc has been repackaged almost as many times as the DVDs, including:

  • A 2008 reissue with a white background cover (the original was red... that seems to be the only difference) 
  • The Essential Holiday Collection 2008 set, which pairs it up with Elf, Christmas Vacation and Polar Express
  • The 25th Anniversary Ultimate Collectors Edition, which comes in a green tin and includes a string of leg lamp Christmas lights, but still just uses the same disc as the previous editions
  • A 2012 Triple Feature BD set with Happy Feet and The Polar Express
  • A Target exclusive "ugly sweater" slipcover edition
  • Another Target exclusive with a lenticular cover and postcards
  • A blu-ray version of that 2019 cookie cutter and Funko pop release
...And a 2013 30th Anniversary BD/ DVD combo pack (the DVD is disc 1 from the 2003 special edition set) steelbook, which alone includes an updated version of the blu-ray disc: version #5.  That's right, even the releases that came later use the older, inferior blu-ray rather than the updated 30th Anniversary edition.
1) 2006 DVD; 2) 2013 DVD (full); 3) 2013 DVD (wide);
4) 2008 BD; 5) 2013 BD.

I never actually realized the fullscreen versions differed until I started work on this post.  The old version is framed at 1.32:1 while the new one is 1.33, but there's a bigger difference than just that slight sliver in AR.  The new fullscreen version zooms in tighter, shaving off information on all four sides, and the older version exhibits noticeably more film damage, which has then been corrected.  The colors are also duller and flatter on the old fullscreen release, but consistent across every version after that.  The fullscreen versions are open matte (and again, the older discs show a pinch more), so that's slightly novel; but apart from that, they have nothing going for them, so let's move on to the widescreen editions we really care about.

The widescreen DVD is unmatted 16x9 at 1.78.  Interestingly, the blu-rays are slightly pillarboxed to 1.77:1.  Every version after 2003 is clearly using the same old master, with identical colors, contrast, etc across all the releases.  The BDs benefit from the much higher bitrate, so they are sharper and resolve more fine detail.  But the blu-ray masters are old as dirt and look it.  Grain is soft apart from the times when you can't see it at all.  Admittedly, parts of this film are meant to look soft with filters applied to the footage, but the majority of the film could look sharper and more film-like; and even those filtered scenes would surely look better with a modernized transfer.  Because yes, to be clear, the 2013 blu looks exactly, 100% identical to the older blus.  Why did I say it was an updated fifth version if there's absolutely zero upgrade in PQ?  Because the upgrade comes in other departments.

The audio, for one.  Real quick, though, let's start with the DVDs.  The original DVD had the original mono plus French and Spanish dubs with optional English (standard and HoH), French and Spanish subtitles.  The updated DVD (for both the full and widescreen versions) is the same except it chucked the Spanish dub.  And that also holds true for the original blu.  One more thing the blu has in common with the DVD?  The audio is still lossy.  Only the 2013 30th Anniversary edition bumps the original track up to lossless DTS-HD.  It also changes some of the language options, dropping the French dub for two Spanish dubs (Latin and Castilian), adding the second Spanish subtitle track, and dropping the English HoH (but keeping the standard English subs).  But yeah, even though WB has put out newer blu-ray releases, like the "Ugly Sweater" version and all that; only the 2013 steelbook has the full uncompressed audio.

The other, perhaps more interesting area where the 30th BD got a shot in the arm was the special features.  Starting from the beginning, though, the original DVD featured nothing but a fullscreen trailer.  After that came the special edition, which introduced almost all of Christmas Story's legacy extras, and replaced the fullscreen trailer with a widescreen one.  The most noteworthy by far is the audio commentary by Clark and star Peter Billingsley, it's a nice, through discussion which carries almost all of the supplemental weight.  Because besides that, the next fullest feature is an 19-minute feature that brings back Clark and Billingsley but also a couple of the other former child actors to share some light anecdotes about the filming process.  Then there are two five-minute featurettes: one about the Red Rider BB gun depicted in the film, and other about a guy who makes leg lamps in the style of the one in Christmas Story.  These are all cute but very light extras.

So any additional material on the 30th Anniversary release was very welcome.  And I don't want to oversell it - what we get isn't all that much more.  Everything from the old discs is carried over, and they've basically just added one more featurette.  At just over 21 minutes, though, it is the longest one yet.  Ostensibly, it's about the home used to film most of the Christmas Story movie, it's still around today as a tourist attraction, where you can pay for tours.  That's as light as anything on the previous discs, though amusing enough, but there's a bit more to it because co-owned and run by Ian Petrella, who played Randy.  So a lot of the featurette really works more as an additional cast interview that gets more in-depth about the film than any of the extras short of the commentary.
So the film still could really use an updated transfer, and the added featurette still doesn't quite transform this into the fully loaded special edition a long-beloved film like A Christmas Story deserves.  But it at least got us closer.  It's unquestionably the one to own now: the only edition with lossless audio, better extras, plus the fancy steelbook packaging takes a little of the sting out of double-dipping.  And unless you think a UHD is right around the corner, it's probably worth it, especially since it isn't a particularly pricey or hard to find disc.  Just be careful which version you're getting, because Warner Bros keeps putting that older, inferior disc out in stores with new packaging gimmicks.  You have to spell out "30th Anniversary Steelbook" on your Christmas list, or there's no telling which one Santa will bring you.

1 comment:

  1. Well they updated 'Christmas Story on 4k BD and it is a pretty awesome edition.