Blu-Ray Review: National Lampoon’s Vacation (30th Anniversary)

National Lampoon's Vacation is still a comedy classic, but the new Blu-ray doesn't have many new special features.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

National Lampoon’s Vacation was a very important movie to my childhood. It played in my house, if not every day, at least once a week. I think the Griswolds are a national treasure. You can put them in any location to show the great American doofus, as they did in Eurpoe, Vegas and a family Christmas gathering. It’s more than just youthful nostalgia though. Vacation is a comedy classic.

Every scene from buying a station wagon to freaking out at an amusement park still makes me smile, if not laugh out loud (laughing out loud is more a function of environment and I’ve seen this movie alone more than in public, though it still played beautifully in public a few years ago). It’s a combination of relatable things that could happen (annoying relatives, getting lost) and outrageous situations that make it a trip from hell (jumping the station wagon in the desert, taking hostages). When I was a kid, I thought the pimp’s response to Clark (Chevy Chase) was hilarious, but it still works as masterful comic timing.

It was dark without being unpleasant. I mean, the impromptu funeral is really inappropriate, but it’s ridiculous enough that it’s not actually sad. Likewise the dog’s accident is horrible (actual violence is only suggested) but the traffic cop’s sadness is genuine, albeit buffoonish to keep things funny. I suppose Vacation does come from a time when it was endearing for a married man to consider adultery. Clark flirts with a babe (Christie Brinkley) on the road and would have cheated on his wife if he hadn’t been caught. Maybe it was divine intervention that the water was cold. He was destined to realize the error of his ways and go back to his wife.

The greatest strength of Vacation might be that it was made at a time when comedies didn’t have to pause for moments of emotion. Screenwriter John Hughes would prove himself a master of the latter, but it’s still okay to make a comedy just funny. Clark wants to be a good father and spend quality time with his family but we never get the heartfelt family moment, and in fact his father/son talks with Russ are purposefully superficial. In fact, when it gets really dark, Clark gets abusive which was always my favorite moment of every Vacation movie, when Clark freaks out. This was the only R-rated one though so his profanity is glorious.

Since this is the 30th Anniversary, maybe a brief plot summary: Clark decides to drive the Griswolds to Wally World so they can spend quality time on the road, seeing the sights of America. The trip gets off to a bad start when he’s swindled into a crappy station wagon, and along the way gets saddled with Aunt Edna (Imogene Coca). HIs wife Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) and kids Russ (Anthony Michael Hall) and Audrey (Dana Barron) just wanted to fly straight to Wally World but on the road they have actual characters, so they’re not just fighting in the back seat. Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid) became such a fan favorite in his few scenes that his absence was noted from European Vacation and they made him a regular in the following two sequels. Given Quaid’s current situation, they could do Vacation: The Search for Cousin Eddie. Maybe after the reboot, Ed Helms’ Rusty can go looking for him.

Even though it was 30 years ago, there’s something timeless about the Griswold’s trip. The big sights are still there: The Grand Canyon, et al. Amusement parks still exist. The nondescript motels and trailer parks would likely have changed little. They’d have Wifi now but these sorts of road stops still exist, or maybe I’m naive. Unfortunately, in 30 years, there’s never really been the ultimate collector’s edition I’d hope for on DVD or Blu-ray.

National Lampoon's Vacation Blu-rayThe Blu-ray looks like the same Blu-ray I already own. I’m happy with Vacation on Blu-ray. It’s got a bit of film look still, some grain, but bright colors and a sharp transfer. It really pops in the middle when the Griswolds are great American landscape. Beats my old VHS recorded off TV.

I’m really surprised they’re doing a 30th anniversary edition with no new features. The film is already on Blu-ray, with minimal extras from the DVD: cast commentary and a 44 second introduction. I mean, I love this movie and I owned it in every format. Even the two DVD releases had something to add (one was full frame which you may notice reveals more in D’Angelo’s shower scene, the other was proper widescreen with those minimal extras). The Blu-ray was already widescreen HD, so they just slapped on a documentary that’s been produced since that release. They still haven’t cleared The Pointer Sisters’ “I’m So Excited” so that scene is still scored by the wrong song.

The 90-minute documentary is the Biography channel “Inside Story.” It’s a thorough, in depth doc featuring every living cast member but Randy Quaid. I just can’t imagine how this justifies a new Blu-ray release. I guess the Biography Channel production looks good in Blu-ray high def. They also refer to Vacation as a five film series so they’re counting the straight-to-video Christmas Vacation 2.

The “Inside Story” includes a deleted scene of the exterior of Roy Wally’s mansion, but they don’t show the actual alternate ending. Why can’t they unearth the deleted scenes where Clark takes Roy Wally hostage? We know it won’t be good (that’s why they rewrote and reshot the ending) but that’s the most significant material related to this film that’s never been made public. Now that we’ve seen Eric Stoltz’ Back to the Future scenes and the full Audrey II invasion in Little Shop of Horrors, the hostage drama finale of Vacation is now my holy grail of deleted scenes.

I still adore Vacation, the whole series really, even Vegas and European but I think the first is still the best. Not even because it’s the original (it can’t claim to have invented the misadventure comedy) or even because it’s the edgiest, being R-rated. Maybe I relate the most to the cross-country road trip, or I just enjoy the funny catastrophes along the way. I still notice new jokes in it, like early on when Clark and Ellen are discussing the trip and washing dishes, Clark is not cleaning anything. He’s just putting dirty dishes back in the cabinets. 30 years, man. It would make Clark Griswold nostalgic, but he’d probably electrocute himself trying to figure out the Blu-ray player. 

National Lampoon's Vacation:




Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Shelf Space Weekly. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.