If ever a movie was rescued by home video, it is 'A Christmas Story.' Director Bob Clark's charming if unassuming adaptation of Jean Shepherd's holiday memoir, "In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash,' was a box office bust when first released in 1983 -- with no big stars, a lack of studio support and few critics rushing to its defense, it sank without a trace, and might have been destined for the dustbin of holiday movies (right next to 'Surviving Christmas'). But enter home video and cable. Thanks to a long shelf life at Blockbuster and incessant airings on TNT (and I do mean incessant -- they still show it 'round the clock every Christmas), the film has been reborn as a new perennial classic. In fact, I would say it has become so beloved that it ranks up there with 'It's a Wonderful Life' and 'Miracle on 34th Street' in its enduring popularity and appeal.
The plot is likely already familiar to you. In 1940s Indiana, nine-year-old Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) dreams of his ideal Christmas gift -- a genuine Red Ryder 200-shot Corbine Action Air Rifle. But when his gruff dad (Darren McGavin) and overprotective mom (Melinda Dillion) regularly respond with the now-classic dismissal, "You'll shoot your eye out!", Ralphie mounts a full-scale, hint-dropping, Santa-begging campaign to secure the ultimate toy. The poor kid also endures a slew of calamities, from snowsuit paralysis, to the yellow-eyed "Scotty Farkus affair," to the dreaded tongue-on-a-frozen-flagpole gambit every kid has tried at recess. Will Ralphie finally win over his parents and score his beloved Red Ryder? The answer may not be as obvious as you think.
I have no idea why 'A Christmas Story' was not a bigger hit in 1983. Perhaps holiday movies just weren't in vogue at the time, or perhaps the advertising campaign was terrible. But whatever the reason, it only makes 'A Christmas Story' that much easier to cherish. The film really isn't that fantastic -- its tone is rather heavy-handed, and visually it's kinda dull -- but like Ralphie, it's such an underdog and so darn lovable you just can't help but embrace it.
You also can't argue with its now-infamous sequences. How can you forget Ralphie saying the F-word and getting his mouth washed out with soap? Or his trip to see Santa, which turns into a scene as nightmarish as anything in a David Lynch movie? Or my favorite, the "leg lamp" scene, which anyone who has ever watched their parents fight over an unwanted home furnishing will instantly recognize. And "You'll shoot your eye out, kid!" has become more than just a catchphrase. It's a retort every parent has memorized -- it's all you gotta say to that whiny little brat that wants his own version of a Red Ryder to shut him right up. No words, not even "Santa knows who's been naughty and who's been nice," can compete.
The only problem with such familiarity is that I have to wonder if there remains a much of a demand for 'A Christmas Story' on video, let alone high-def. Quite frankly, you can see the film ad nauseam on TV for free, and it is far from a visually spectacular epic tailor-made for home theater. But once again, I gotta root for the underdog. I hope 'A Christmas Story' is a big hit on HD DVD, because really, can a house be a home without a copy?
'A Christmas Story' hits HD DVD in 1.85:1 widescreen and 1080p/VC-1 video. Like 'National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation,' which Warner is also releasing on the same day, the source material has not been given the major overhaul I've come to expect on a high-def title. The master used for this release clearly suffers from age-related defects, and while it's still preferable to the numerous, mostly atrocious home video versions that have come before, it is hardly a revelation.
Though 'A Christmas Story' was released in 1983, it looks like it could have been made in the '70s. Shot through what looks like gauze, the film has a misty, water-colored memory appearance. The print looks rather soft, grainy and occasionally dirty -- there is even a scratch mark or two noticeable. Colors are fairly well saturated, however, and reds in particular are clearly deeper than the standard-def version. Unfortunately, fleshtones are also wonky, with everyone looking a bit too red-faced.
The transfer also lacks depth. Though more impressive than 'National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation,' 'A Christmas Story' is still far from the kind of three-dimensional, wondrous image one associates with high-def. I also noticed some compression noise in solid patches of color. Still, taking the source material into consideration, this HD DVD version looks pretty good.
I have to admit to getting a bit of a giggle out of the "Dolby Digital-Plus 1.0 Mono" soundtrack listed on the back of the package. Does such a thing exist? Apparently it does, though I can't say it helps much when you're dealing with a mono track. Granted, this ain't 'Superman Returns,' but still, it would have been nice to at least get a stereo remix. As such, the quality here is what you'd expect, and won't surprise anyone whose seen one of the airings of the film on TNT.
The best I can say about this mix is that it is at least clean and clear. Dynamics are mediocre, though. High end is tinny and flat -- I frequently found my ears pierced by shrillness, especially during that scene when Santa kicks Ralphie down the slide and all the kids are crying and screaming. Ouch. Bass response is also anemic at best. Still, dialogue is usually intelligible, so at least it's listenable. Not too much more one can say about a mono track.
For years, a new version of 'A Christmas Story' was released nearly every Christmas, all pan and scan disasters. Finally, back in 2004, Warner gave fans what they wanted and released a two-disc widescreen version. Though not overflowing with extras, there was enough good stuff to justify the "Special Edition" label. All of those extras have been ported over to this HD DVD release.
The highlight for me is the "Another Christmas Story" 20th anniversary featurette. Running nearly 30 minutes, it features then-new interviews with a few main cast and crew, including director Bob Clark, stars Peter Billingsley and a few of the younger actors in the film, including future porn star Scotty Schwartz (seriously, that kid from 'The Toy' has now, um, found a new line of work). While just another collection of talking heads interspersed with film clips, it is nice to hear warm remembrances of a film whose cult success has truly changed the lives of those who made it. My only complaint? A series of poetry-like holiday rhymes that bridge the various sections of the featurettes. Too mushy for me.
Clark and Billingsley also contribute a screen-specific audio commentary that's pretty good. Clark is nothing if not a diverse director, and he reveals here that he jumped at 'A Christmas Story' following the critical drubbing he received for doing the then-controversial teen flick 'Porky's.' Billingsley, unfortunately, seems a bit out of it, or just bored with being Ralphie, and doesn't offer nearly as many production insights as Clark. Still, worthy of a listen, at least for a little while.
Two more featurettes begin to round out the package. I really enjoyed both "Daisy Red Rider," a surprisingly knowledgeable history of the pic's famed BB gun as well as the character that inspired it, and "Get a Leg Up," a truly hilarious ode to the film's now-famous leg lamp. Comparing it to the Statue of Liberty, the movie prop has proven so popular a cult item that a company now specializes in making facsimiles. Get me one, now!
Wrapping things up are some Script Pages presented as text screens, and the film's original theatrical trailer in rather splotchy-looking 480p video.
'A Christmas Story' will forever play on TNT around the clock every holiday, and not even driving a rusty meat hook through the cranium of Peter Billingsley will stop it. If you want to own the film in high-def so you can relive the experience year round, you could do worse than this HD DVD version. Sure, the transfer is a bit shopworn and the mono track is a bit plain, but it kind of adds to the nostalgia. And there are some fun extras. too. Next to an authentic Daisy Red Ryder, this HD DVD may be the best gift you could give to the 'Christmas Story' fan on your gift list this holiday.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.