Jim Bray's Car & Tech rants - publishing online exclusively since 1995
National Lampoon's Vacation

Warner Brothers unpacks National Lampoon's Vacation for 4K disc

By Jim Bray
June 29, 2023

Director Harold Ramis unleashed Chevy Chase and his family's first cinematic vacation on an unsuspecting public back in 1983 and now Warner Brothers, as part of its 100th anniversary celebration, is unleashing it again, this time on 4K disc.

The movie, which if movies can do such things, is also celebrating its 40th anniversary and it was a pretty big hit when it came out. I have to admit, however, that I didn't find it particularly funny back then, despite having been a fan of the National Lampoon magazine and the original Saturday Night Live. And Harold Ramis, of whom I'd been a fan since his days with SCTV.

I'm glad Warners sent me this new 4K disc to review, however, because upon seeing the film decades later, I found it a lot funnier than I had remembered.

In fact, I laughed out loud several times during the opening half of the movie – though I also think it kind of runs out of comedic steam toward the end and I didn't laugh much during later scenes. On the other hand, I experienced extreme jealousy seeing Chase and the "family" joined by the late John Candy on a whole bunch of neat roller coasters when the finally got to Wally World. I'd have volunteered for that!

The movie was written by John Hughes before he was "John Hughes" (by which I mean the famous director), apparently based on a short story of his. It tells the tale of Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase), an ordinary guy who's planning a special, once in a lifetime (unless there are sequels…) family vacation, driving in their brand new (and awful) car from their Chicago home to California's Wally World, a typical but in this case imaginary theme park.

The Griswolds are a nice family. Clark means well, which is all that matters to liberals, but he's rather inept. Ellen is a good wife and mother, though the trials and tribulations through which she and the family go are enough to strain the strongest of relationships.

The family visits include a stop with loser kinfolk led by Randy Quaid, where they get saddled with doddering old Aunt Edna (Imogene Coca) who needs a ride home, which just happens to be on the way. She brings along her dog, which sets up a couple of the funnier moments of the movie. Especially if you're a cat fan!

They finally get to Walley World, but of course their troubles don't end there.

Naturally, everything on the trip goes wrong, from the family getting lost, to car troubles and rip-offs, bored and unruly (and stoned) kids, you name it.

Well, if everything came off without a hitch, we wouldn't have much of a movie, would we, so obviously there's an abundance of angst in the story, from wrong turns that take them through ghettos to the abovementioned family visit with ne-er do well family members, and there's even a running theme that hearkens back to George Lucas' American Graffiti, where a pretty girl (Christie Brinkley, in this case) keeps showing up and kicking Clark's sexual fantasies into high gear, much like Suzanne Somers and her Thunderbird did to Richard Dreyfuss in "Graffiti".

Here, it's a Ferrari. A nice one, too.

But I digress. They also run out of money, and options, and eventually, having been taken to the end of their ropes by circumstances that could only happen like this in a movie, they resort to crime and intimidation to get their day at Wally World – joined eventually by a SWAT team, the owner of the park, and a couple of hapless employees.

There are some beautiful locations on hand, too, as they drive from the Mid-West to the Golden State, almost as if it's a real-life travelogue.

Chase is fine as the put-upon patriarch. I've never been a huge fan of his, but his schtick works here. Beverly D'Angelo is the suffering but sexy wife and she plays the part well. So do the kids, played by Anthony Michael Hall and Dana Barron. The supporting cast, most of whom have rather small parts as the movie meets them and then passes them by on its way West, are also cast well, and it was especially nice to see director Ramis hiring old SCTV buddies Candy and Eugene Levy for the film.

I never saw the movie on Blu-ray, so can't comment on how it looked and sounded on that format, and I must admit the 4K disc reviewed here isn't the best of that species either, though it's hardly a slouch. Its problems, of which there are few, are mainly related to the film's age and decisions made by the creators back then.

For example, unlike today's mostly grain-free digital images, there's plenty of grain in evidence here and sometimes it's REALLY obvious. But that's better than artificial digital scrubbing. There appears to be some of that here, too, but it isn't egregious.

On the whole, colours are terrifically rich and clean and the high dynamic range picture does nearly pop off the screen sometimes. Not enough, but what can you do? Mostly, the picture looks natural, and that's what one looks for regardless of its analogue or digital genesis. I wouldn't consider using this movie as a demonstration of my home theatre system, but it's a very enjoyable presentation anyway.

The same can be said about the audio. It's presented in DTS-HD stereo, which is fine. It's clean and with a decent dynamic range and though it won't make your walls shake and your windows rattle, it's okay – and I'd rather have the original audio than a retweaked one that makes it inferior. The best of all worlds is a redone audio track that drags a soundtrack into the 21st century, but such isn't the case here and, unlike in such films as 2001: a Space Odyssey where the audio is really important, it doesn't matter much in this case.

Extras are limited to a commentary track featuring Chase, Quaid, Matty Simmons, Ramis, Hall and Barron. It's pretty interesting but of course it isn't new at all, since Ramis has been dead for years.

National Lampoon's Vacation will obviously never go down in history as a cinematic masterpiece, but that's not what was intended for it anyway. It's a silly and funny, and sometimes even quite touching, look at Everyman's dreams of a special vacation with his loved ones, and how that can go spectacularly wrong despite the best plans and the best intentions. And though I though it kind of ran out of steam toward the end, it's still funny and worth seeing.

And you can pretty well say the same about the 4K disc presentation: it ain't the best if you're into reference quality audio and video, but it's a fine representation of the movie anyway, with very good HDR picture and reasonable lossless sound.

Time to revisit that Holiday Road again?

Copyright 2023 Jim Bray

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