Dueling Blus: Christmas Vacation (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

I wonder how many fans are even aware that Warner Bros quietly replaced their old blu-ray edition of National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation with a new remaster in 2015? It was done, at least in part, to fan criticism that they kept repackaging and re-releasing the film (the original 2006 release, the 2008 "Essential Holiday Collection," the 2009 limited edition tin, the Walmart exclusive with the Clark Griswald Funko pop keychain) with the same old disc inside.  So when they announced upcoming steelbook and Diamond Lux editions, and they kept getting pelted with questions of whether this will be a new transfer, they finally conceded.  Unfortunately, it's not always clear which disc you'll be getting when you buy this in stores, and some have even argued that they prefer the older master anyway.  So that seems like the perfect situation to dive into here for this holiday season.
Christmas Vacation is one of those very rare sequels that's as highly regarded, possibly even more so, than its original counterpart.  You've got, what?  Godfather II, Evil Dead 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight and I suppose Ghoulies 2?  And even in about half of those cases, I still prefer the firsts.  My point is: it's a rare feat.  And this is thanks in no small part, I'm sure, to the return of screenwriter John Hughes.  Sync him up with the Lampoon legacy of sarcasm and parody, and you've got a film with just enough bite to keep us adults in our chairs every time it airs.  They lost him in the later entries, and boy do you feel it.  In fact, unlike European Vacation, this is the only other Vacation film to be based off of an original short story Hughes wrote for the Lampoon in the late 70s.  So you'd be right for feeling this and the first are bolstered by having substantial source material to stand on.
Besides the writing, you've got an amazing cast.  Besides the ever interchangeable children, almost all of the original cast return, including of course Chevy Chase and Beverly D'AngeloRandy Quaid and Miriam Flynn, who were left out of the last film, return as Cousin Eddie and Catherine.  And this time around,  those interchangeable kids turned out to be pre-fame Juliette Lewis and Johnny Galecki (Rosanne, Big Bang Theory).  Another Vacation vet, Brian Doyle Murray, returns to play a new role (Chevy's boss), and Julia-Louis Dreyfus is their yuppie neighbor.  And that's practically just the beginning: the extended family introduces a cavalcade of classic character and old Hollywood actors.  You've got the great E.G. Marshall, Remington's Steele's Doris Roberts, Diane Ladd, Mae Questel (Woody's mom in New York Stories), John Randolph and the Puppet Master himself, William Hickey.  So virtually every line is being elevated by an excessively talented delivery.
Christmas Vacation debuted on DVD all the way back in 1997, but it was fullscreen and barebones, so I held out for the 2003 Special Edition.  Not that it was much of a special edition, with just one special feature to speak of, but we'll get to that.  Anyway, that 2003 DVD was repackaged plenty of times, but in terms of the actual disc, that's been the sole, definitive edition until it was brought into HD in 2006, on both blu and HD-DVD.  And I've already told the story from there, so I'll just point out a few important little details.  First of all, don't bother looking for the aforementioned Diamond Lux edition, as that release was cancelled.  Consequently, the remastered blu was originally a steelbook exclusive.  Today, it kind of is, but there have been multiple reports online of people buying the standard blu-ray release in recent years, which still has the 2006 info on the back cover, but actually has the remastered blu inside.  So it's a bit up in the air what you might find if you buy one of those; but the steelbooks always have the remastered edition (and bear the "remastered on blu-ray" banner on the back).  Finally, I should point out that there are actually two steelbooks: one with the blu and a digital download, and one with the blu and a DVD.  The one with the code doesn't have a DVD, and no, the one with the DVD doesn't have a digital download code.  I've got the DVD one, so we have four discs to look at today:
1) 2003 WB Special Edition DVD 2) 2008 WB Ultimate Collector's Edition BD
3) 2016 WB steelbook DVD 4) 2016 WB steelbook BD
So, where to begin.  Well, first of all, the DVD included in the 2016 steelbook is the same old 2003 special edition DVD, so it doesn't feature the new scan or anything.  It's the exact same old disc: widescreen 1.78:1 (all the cases, from the 2003 DVD to the 2017 remastered blu, claim 1.85:1, but they're all incorrect), anamorphic and generally pretty good for DVD.  You can certainly see the compression, though, and say what you will about the old blu-ray, it definitely cleans up the picture and gives us a noticeably sharper, clearer image.  But at its heart, it's using the same root master, with the framing marginally adjusted to 1.77:1 (it has very slim pillar-boxing). The grain's fairly natural and there are hints of edge enhancement and/or sharpening, but it's kept to a decent minimum.

So the old blu wasn't so bad, and the new blu is a modest upgrade, but an upgrade nonetheless.  The new transfer is taken from a fresh 2k scan of the interpositive, not the OCN, so it's not the fresh burst of detail fans might've been expecting.  But the grain and what soft detail there we have is captured more clearly, and the colors are a little stronger.  The framing's been restored to 1.78:1 (no more pillars), and is actually a little tighter, losing a little picture on the sides.  It looks good, though, and I trust that it's more accurate, just like the blue filters.  Yeah, that's really the most noticeable distinction: the new blu restores blu filters to outdoor nighttime scenes (of which this film has quite a lot), that have been missing from all previous home video releases.  You can see it in the first set of shots with Beverly on the front stoop.  I have to admit, when I first saw screencaps online, it looked a little too blue.  But now that I've had time to live with both, the older editions do feel incorrect, and the filters do belong there.
Being an early blu, I guess it's not surprising that the Dolby stereo track is the same as the DVD, decent but lossy.  Another real advantage of the remaster is that the 2.0 track has been boosted up to DTS-HD.  All versions have optional English subtitles, though the foreign options differ a bit: the DVDs have a French dub and French and Spanish subs.  The old blu keeps all of that and adds a Spanish dub, while the new blu drops the French dub for a second Spanish one (Latin and Castilian).
Considering how beloved and constantly reissued this film is, it's surprising how few extras have been made for this.  The 2003 Special Edition introduced one key feature, and it's pretty much all we've ever gotten.  That said, though, it's pretty good.  It's an audio commentary with the director, producer, Beverly D'Angelo, Randy Quaid, Johnny Galecki and Miriam Flynn.  There's enough of them there that it stays fun and energetic all the way through to the film, but they're restrained enough that they're able to impart lots of good info and anecdotes without talking all over each other and becoming intelligible.  But that and the trailer is all we get.

Even with the jump to blu-ray, that's it.  I did get the limited edition tin of the old blu-ray, though, which certainly delivered the good sin terms of novelty packaging, if not actual video features.  It comes with a series of themed coasters, a pin, a mini Moose mug (about Barbie size), a Santa hat (bigger than Barbie size, but still too small for a human head), and a little box of powdered snow.  It's a pretty attractive tin, though, and the interior case is a cool green.  There was also a DVD version of this tin with the same contents except for the alternate disc, and that tin is snow white instead of red.  And of course the new blu comes in the steelbook, so that version has fancy packaging, too.  But no new features.
So okay, it's still not the loaded special edition this film deserves.  Maybe we just have to wait for an eventual UHD.  Then they'd have to go 4k... although in terms of special features, it seems like those discs are paring back more than they're broadening any horizons.  Anyway, that's the future.  For the present, Warner's remaster is the best version going.  You'll definitely get it if you go for the steelbook, or you can roll the dice on a standard amaray case.  It's an inexpensive double-dip, even in the steel; so you might as well go for it, especially if you watch it every year like my family does.  🎅

3 comments:

  1. You made a list of sequels which bettered their originals. And you neglected to include T2. You're a monster, John.

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    1. That's because I've always hated all the kiddie stuff they added in the second one, where he buddies up with a teenager who teaches him him slang and to wear cool shades. I appreciate the higher production values, and admittedly the first Terminator isn't an un-improvable classic. But to me, T2 was a huge step down. Though I haven't watched it since the 90s, so maybe I'd appreciate it more now?

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  2. T2 was a huge step down?! Blasphemy! Also, you're forgetting that the kid rocks a Public Enemy t-shirt throughout the entire movie. That alone puts it above the original.

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