How To Take the Ultimate Vacation

Alright, four horror films in a row, including the infamous "video nasty" Anthropophagus and possibly the most mean-spirited Texas Chainsaw Massacre flick of all.  We've gotta lighten the mood.  How about one of the most beloved American family comedies of all-time?  I've been meaning to tackle this one for a long time, actually, because the extras situation is frustrating, and I'm not sure how many fans even realize.  And any opportunity to drag people down into my frustration and annoyance is an absolute must, right?  But seriously, there's some compelling info about this title and its many editions that doesn't get discussed, so I wanted to spread the word.

Update 9/1/17 - 6/30/23: So Warner Bros has reissued Vacation at least a half dozen more times here in the US alone since I made this post. But just this week, they've done something more than just repackage the same transfer.  They're released it on 4k Ultra HD - an actual, genuine upgrade!  But that's not to say it's perfect...
Of course, for a "family comedy" - one written by John Hughes at that - Harold Ramis's Vacation sure is R-rated.  Must be the National Lampoon influence.  They later softened up the sequels to PG, but this original film has an edge.  Granted, the remake went back to R; but the only funny thing about that film was the younger son's insane, terroristic relationship with his older brother.  The original, on the other hand, works on so many different levels at the same time.  On the one hand, it is that sentimental, Hughes comedy about family, but it also gets pretty dark, undercutting any mainstream schmaltz with harsh comic reality at almost every turn.  Vacation gives us one of Chevy Chase's greatest comic performances, if not his literal all-time greatest, while also pulling together a terrific ensemble of supporting players including Beverly D'Angelo in her quintessential role, John Candy, Imogene Coca, Eugene Levy, old Hollywood star Eddie Bracken, Brian-Doyle Murray, a very young Jane Krakowsi, and of course Randy Quaid.  It's got an unforgettable soundtrack (despite Warner Bros being too cheap to keep paying for "I'm So Excited" over the years) with an iconic theme song and one scene after another that's forever embedded in a generation's memory.
Naturally, Warner Bros has put out Vacation a number of times, starting with a barebones fullscreen DVD in 1997.  But there was a much more compelling 20th Anniversary Special Edition released in 2003 (and also included in the 2003 Ultimate Vacation Collection boxed set), that's still relevant to this day.  It was alternatively bundled up with Police Academy, as well as released as a 2-disc set with European Vacation in 2006, then the Ultimate box and the double feature were both reissued with new art in 2009.  2010 then saw us the first version since the 2003 20th Anniversary that we actually got a different disc and not just a repackaging, because that's when Warner first released the film on blu.  But curiously, they took a step backwards in the extras department, losing some stuff.  There was also a DVD edition of that version, naturally, and in 2011, there was a National Lampoon's Vacation Collection which included just parts 1, 2 and 4 on DVD, which seems a little odd.  And a "Bromantic Comedies" DVD which included the first two Vacation movies and a can cooler... even though I don't see how either Vacation film qualifies as bromantic.
If nothing else, we get a sense of this movie's popularity just because it's apparently profitable for Warner to keep reissuing the same disc over and over again with variant, tacky packaging.  They just keep selling; and this doesn't even include the dozens of other Vacation discs Warner has released in every other region around the world.  Meanwhile, Looking for Mr. Goodbar can't get a single DVD in the history of the format.  It was nominated for two Oscars for chrissakes.  Anyway, refocusing, Warner even included Vacation in a couple of 4 and 5 Film Favorite DVD collections as recently 2016, but at this point the blus are of much more interest.  So after the original 2010 DVD, it was re-released on blu in 2013 as the 30th Anniversary Edition, with an all-new "featurette."  That edition was also included in a 2014 3-disc set with European Vacation and Planes Trains and Automobiles.  So out of all those releases, the two versions to care about are the 20th Anniversary DVD and 30th blu-ray.  We'll take a look at those, plus the original 2010 blu-ray.

And there have been plenty more releases since: a Vacation: Five Film Collection (including the remake, not Christmas Vacation 2), a Vacation 1 & 2 blu-ray double bill, Warner Bros' 10 film Best Of the 80s vol. 2, etc.  But the only one really of note is their brand new, 2023 4k Ultra HD, released as a standard edition or Best Buy exclusive steelbook.
1) 2003 WB DVD; 2) 2010 WB BD; 3) 2013 WB BD; 4) 2023 WB UHD.

The first three discs all feature a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, despite the cases claiming 1.85:1.  Still, the framings of the DVD and blu-rays are not exactly the same.  The two blus themselves are essentially identical; they're clearly using the same transfer.  But the DVD is a little zoomed in, with the blus displaying a little extra picture information along all four sides.  And now we get the new UHD, which is the first to feature an actual 1.85:1 composition.  So we're already off to a good start.  The DVD has a slightly red push, which even the BDs corrected.  But the UHD, with HDR10, has the most naturalistic colors of them all, with more nuanced shading than the BDs.  In terms of resolution and detail, the DVD has a little haloing and natural SD smudginess that I was happy to see cleared up on the blus.  But unsurprisingly, the UHD looks even better.  Since the blus are early HD, I'm not surprised to see the grain a little soft.  It's certainly captured better now, but it's honestly still a little softer than I would've expected in some areas.  A less than ideal encode?  But don't read too much into that; it still blows the BDs away.  And not just in terms of grain rendering, actual detail is clearer, too.  You can see the braces on Rusty's teeth in first set of shots, for example, much better on the UHD than the BD.  And the signs behind them are sharper and more legible.

All four discs feature the original mono track, in DTS-HD on the blus and UHD, with optional English subtitles.  And as usual with Warner Bros, they also include a number of foreign language options.  The DVD throws in both French, Spanish and Portuguese dubs and sets of subtitles.  But what's a little bit interesting is that the 30th Anniversary blu has more language options than the 2010 edition.  2010 has French and Spanish dubs and subs, while the 2013 has Spanish, Castillian and German dubs, plus Castillian, Danish, Finnish, French, German, Norwegian, Spanish and Swedish subtitles.  The 2023 disc goes back to the 2010 with just French and Spanish dubs and subs.  So if you have a need for foreign language options, you might still want to hang onto that 2013 disc.
More striking, though - especially between the two blu-rays - is the differences in extras.  The 20th Anniversary DVD came up with a pretty strong, if decidedly imperfect, selection of extras.  The biggest selling point is the packed audio commentary by Harold Ramis with, producer Matty Simmons, Chevy Chase, Beverly D'Angelo, Anthony Michael Hall, Dana Barron and Randy Quaid.  They do a great job walking the line of having fun with all those people cracking jokes but still being informative.  The only thing is that they mention deleted scenes in the commentary that they say will be on the DVD but aren't, and to this day have never been released.  But okay, let's stick with what else we do get.  There's a brief video introduction to the film by with Chase, Quaid and Simmons kidding around, the theatrical trailer and a "Family Truckster Featurette Gallery."  We've go to talk about that.
So it's kind of a big collection of easter eggs.  You click around the image of this car and get different, short video clips.  For example, if you click on the front bumper, you get a brief interview with Dana Barron talking about why she didn't appear in the sequel, or if you click on the front tire, you get an interview with Christie Brinkley.  If you click on the front windshield, it takes you inside the car where you get another layout of the radio, and clicking each station button gives you more little videos.  Now, these videos really range in quality.  One of them is a great little featurette with Matty Simmons and stunt coordinator/ driver Dick Ziker talking about the famous station wagon.  But then clicking on the roof rack just brings up a montage of Aunt Edna gags from the film with no new footage.  One radio button just gives you a clip of Brinkley introducing the 20th Anniversary, apparently an alternative they would've used to the film intro if they couldn't get Chevy.  There are also three outtakes from that video recording with Chevy joking around, Dana Barron introducing a clip of the family singing in the car, and a featurette where Brinkley and Simmons talk about the hotel dinner scene.

I can see why they left it off later editions as-is.  The novelty/ chore of clicking around hunting for easter eggs has gone out of fashion, and while some of the clips are great, and feature interviews with people who weren't included on anywhere else, others are pretty worthless, like the clips from the film.  But it's really a shame to see some of them go, and they could've at least strung the more substantive interviews into a single feature for future editions.  There's a great ten to minute featurette in there with all the fun bits.  It's even got its own IMDB entry as if that had been the case.  But nope, they just scrapped it all.
So the 2010 blu-ray is just a straight step backwards.  They have the commentary and the introduction, but that's it.  Yup, they even lost the trailer.  That's just flat-out lazy in my opinion.  But the 30th Anniversary Edition, while still not restoring the Truckster stuff, coughs up something new.  First of all, they recover the trailer, which is a good start.  But the important thing is "Featurette: Inside Story: National Lampoon's Vacation."  On the plus side, this "featurette" is almost 90 minutes long, and includes interviews with just about everybody, from the main stars to the crew and supporting cast who have been left out of the other special features.  But in the minus column, this isn't something new or original, this is an episode of Biography's regular Inside Story series, full of commercial breaks and "coming up next" bumpers.  So it's got plenty of great interviews and content, but it's horribly edited to the point of being seriously annoying, playing the same soundbites over and over.  At the end of the day, though, despite the problems, it's well worth having.

Which makes it all the more disappointing that the 2023 release has again stepped backwards.  Inside Story is gone and still no Truckster.  Even the trailer's gone again; we've gone straight back to 2010 with nothing but the commentary.  In fact, it's worst than the 2010 release, because the intro's gone now, too.  And no, there's nothing new.  Hoping for that deleted footage Chase mentioned in the commentary all the way back when?  Nope.  This comes in a slipcover and again, yes, the commentary is still here.  But this "100 Years of Warner" disc is surprisingly barren.
Ultimately, we fans still can't get rid of our 20th Anniversary DVDs.  And even if you kept that and double-dipped on the original blu-ray with the new one for the television special as well as the new UHD, that combined package still feels like kind of a light special edition for a such a classic, beloved film.  But, at the end of the day, the film itself is what's really important.  And this is the best it's ever looked.  It's just not the ultimate, loaded special edition with "I'm So Excited" restored to the audio and everything else this film deserves.  But don't worry; I'm sure Warner Bros plans to release Vacation a billion more times.