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In 1983, a low budget movie called ‘A Christmas Story’ came and went with little notice. Two decades later, the film has become a holiday cult classic and is shown on television numerous times between Thanksgiving and Christmas. In fact, it plays continuously for twenty-four hours on Christmas Day. Warner Brothers has celebrated the 20th Anniversary of the film with a new digital transfer and a two-disc special edition DVD. And let me tell you, it looks great.

The Movie
At the core, the movie is about Ralph Parker’s quest for his ultimate Christmas present, a Red Ryder 200 shot carbine action air rifle. Ralphie, as he is called in the film, is blocked at every turn when he tries to acquire the gun for Christmas. But he will not be deterred.  In an example of just how much a part this film has become intertwined with culture, the phrase he is told on more than one occasion of, “You’ll shoot your eye out” continues to be one of those phrases that has stuck with people and is common to this day. The movie itself is a humorous look at not only Ralphie’s search for the present, but also of Christmas, family life, and childhood as a whole. A microcosm of life in middle America in the 1940’s, as co-written and narrated by Jean Shepherd (based upon his novel “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash”), it presents a portrait of life that we almost all can identify with, focusing on relationships between children and parents, between classmates, between bullies and other children, and between husband and wife.

The more Ralphie tries to get the rifle, the further it seems to slip away from him, and he has many other things occupying his time. With trying to stay away from the town bully, writing the world’s best theme for his grade school class, helping his father fix a flat tire, and just eating a decent meal on Christmas Day, Ralphie has many different situations demanding his attention.

Christmas Story: 20th Anniversary Special Edition, A
There are too many laugh out loud moments in the picture to name, and, in a refreshing manner, they do not all come from the same source. The picture’s most hilarious moments, and its greatest strength, are its blend of superb dialogue (as spoken by Shepherd, commenting on the action), visual comedic gems (such as the ‘flagpole incident’ or when Ralphie’s mother attempts to dress his younger brother Randy in his winter clothes), and Ralphie’s daydreaming segments which further help to explain just how important the rifle is in the life of this boy.

Besides the writing and situations, the cast of this film is tremendous. Peter Billingsley plays Ralphie with just the right combination of innocence, shrewdness, and humour. He continues to weave scheme after scheme to get the rifle, first trying to convince his parents, then the local department store Santa, and finally his grade school teacher. In each instance he is rebuffed. Billingsley is also able to bring Ralphie from one emotion to another. His excitement at receiving a Little Orphan Annie decoder ring changes to genuine horror when the first message he decodes turns out to be a commercial for Ovaltine. The other members of the cast are dead on, also. Darren McGavin is superb as the father of the family, a man who does almost daily battle with his broken furnace and believes he will win $50,000 in a newspaper trivia contest. When he does win a leg lamp….ummm……major award, the glee on his face is priceless. While his wife (played by Melinda Dillon) shows embarrassment, McGavin treats it like a prize trophy and displays it for the neighbourhood to see, while Ralphie treats it as something that helps to awaken his sexual desires.

Christmas Story: 20th Anniversary Special Edition, A
Video
Warner Brothers has produced a new digital transfer for the movie’s 20th anniversary, and the film has never looked better. This is apparent from the opening credits. Anyone who has seen previous presentations of this film has probably noticed how in the past the credits for the film seemed to bleed into the rest of the frame; they were fuzzy around the edges. On this disc, the credits are clearly defined and vivid in their presentation. And that’s not the only improvement! In what is probably the best enhancement, the film is also presented for the first time in anamorphic widescreen (ratio 1.85:1), although one still has the option of watching it in fullscreen if they so desire.

I can imagine that since the popularity of this film has been a result of its repeated airings on television, many may continue to watch the fullscreen presentation since that will be how they know the film. But for film purists, it is nice to finally have a widescreen option. For the most part, the colours are rich and flesh tones are perfect. There is at times some slight dullness in some of the scenes, but for the most part these occur during Ralphie’s daydreaming, and it serves the purpose of the script.

Christmas Story: 20th Anniversary Special Edition, A
Audio
To be honest, the audio of the film is a non-factor in whether or not you will enjoy the disc. This isn’t a movie that relies on sound gimmicks. A visual and dialogue driven film, there are no great bells and whistles here, and that is just fine. The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono and all of the dialogue is very audible and clear. The music in the film is rich and when Ralphie and his family gather around the old-time radio to listen to ‘Little Orphan Annie’ you get the distinct impression that you are back in the 1940’s just from the audio. Overall, while not anything flashy or eccentric, the audio serves the film well, and although not Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS on which everyone is so fixated, it is a decent presentation of Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono.

Extras
To celebrate its 20th anniversary, Warner Brothers has included in this set a slew of extra features. On the film itself, a new Feature Length Commentary by Billingsley and Clark serves to put the film into its context and the two reminisce about the many trials and tribulations it took to make the film. Billingsley really directs the commentary, often asking Clark questions to get the director to open up. Other than the commentary on the film and the theatrical trailer, the remaining extras can be found on the second disc. The most comprehensive is a documentary entitled Another Christmas Story, which features a narrator reciting poetry in a ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’ fashion, as interviews with many of the actors and director are interspersed. There are several amusing anecdotes that are relayed, and from the stories it appears as though the cast had a lot of fun making the film, and that they are somewhat in awe at how popular the film has become.

Two shorter featurettes, entitled Get A Leg Up and Daisy Red Ryder: A History, are included. While the Red Ryder short is done straightforward, the Leg Lamp one is done ‘tongue in cheek’, and everyone seems to get that except for the owner of the company that manufactures the lamps and the worker at the factory. That they take what they are doing so seriously as the reporter is asking questions in an obvious parody of investigative news programs makes the whole piece incredibly funny. And speaking of the Leg Lamp, one of the two hidden easter eggs (check out our easter egg section for the other and how to access them!) will bring you to a commercial for the lamp, and although you would think this is another parody, you can actually go to the website indicated and order a lamp if you have the desire.

Christmas Story: 20th Anniversary Special Edition, A
The best extra in the set is a pair of audio readings by Jean Shepherd, the narrator of the film and the author upon whose work the entire film is based. It is obvious that Shepherd is very passionate about his youth, and childhood in general, and he instils in his storytelling just the right amount of humour and poignancy to make anyone yearn for the gold old days of their yesteryears. I can imagine how it must have been for those people who sat in auditoriums and felt enthralled as Shepherd was reciting these the first time on his college tours. Although only an audio track, he had my attention glued to his every word.  

Overall
There are few films that can say that they have become ‘classics’ after their theatrical runs. ‘A Christmas Story’ is one of those films. Much like ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, it owes its ascent to ‘classic’ to its television exposure. Much more popular now than when it was released in 1983, the film is one that has continued to grow and gather new viewers to it with each passing year. One of current days most watched holiday films, Warner Brothers has finally given the film a DVD release it deserves. ‘A Christmas Story’ is 20 years old - here’s to another 20 years!


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