A Christmas Story: Ultimate Collector's Edition
Directed By: Bob Clark
Cast: Peter Billingsley, Darren McGavin, Melinda Dillon, Ian Petrella, Scott Schwartz, R.D. Robb, Tedde Moore, Zack Ward
Warner revisits the holiday perennial A Christmas Story to give it the Ultimate Collector's Edition tin box treatment. The discs themselves are bit-identical to the 20th Anniversary Two-Disc Special Edition from five years ago. Since that title was not reviewed for the Home Theater Forum, I present a thorough overview below. If you are already familiar with the 2003 release, feel free to skip ahead to my assessment of the packaging.
A Christmas Story, based on the writings and oratories of Jean Shepard, tells the story of Ralphie Parker (Billingsley), a young boy in the American midwest who wants nothing more for Christmas than a Daisy Red Rider Air Rifle (with a compass and stock and a thing that tells time on the side). Ralphie's quest to impress the importance of this Christmas gift item on all of the adults in his life, almost always met with the response of, "You'll shoot your eye out", provides the throughline for the film. Along the way, Ralphie is involved with several episodic adventures involving his friends and family throughout the pre-Christmas season.
For a holiday themed period film celebrating classic Americana, A Christmas Story is unique for its near complete lack of sentimentality. That may very well be the secret to its broad appeal and improbable emergence from its low budget origins and modest box office performance into the status of a perennial seasonal classic. Director Bob Clark cinematically captures Jean Shepherd's combination of warmth and gentle subversiveness in a manner that has plenty to offer for both the idealists and cynics in the audience.
Technically, Clark makes the most of his modest budget by creating an early 1940s on-screen period that feels authentic. In some cases, limitations brought on out of necessity, such as a wide shot of the family's living room showing off their enormous Christmas tree that has the edges of the frame darkened to avoid showing the limits of the set, serve to make the film appear as if it was produced in the period it is set.
Clark's attention to detail extended to the casting, particularly in the members of the Parker family with Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon as the parents and Ian Petrella as the little brother forming a perfect dysfunctional family ensemble with Billingsley. You can understand how they could scare each from time to time, and yet you never doubt that their is real affection beyond the dysfunction. Billingsley, who was only 12 years old when the film was released, gives a particularly amazing performance, employing a seemingly bottomless resource of facial expressions that sell every bit of off-screen narration without appearing to mug or overplay (except for the hilarious fantasy sequences which are supposed to be over the top).
Jean Shepherd's oratory style is something like the verbal equivalent of a Norman Rockwell painting with an extra helping of gently subversive satire. "A Christmas Story" is a near perfect cinematic realization of this. Clark wisely retained the flavor of Shepherd's storytelling not just by enlisting him as co-author of the screenplay, but also by casting him as the off-screen narrator, an adult Ralphie looking back on the events of his youth. The cast embody Shepherd's extremely relatable cynicism expertly, and the world they inhabit feels exactly like the word pictures painted by his prose.
The film is presented on disc in both a widescreen presentation that fils the entire 16:9 enhanced frame and a 4:3 open matte reformatted version, both on the same side of the first disc. I did not review the 4:3 presentation. The widescreen presentation improves substantially on the original 4:3-only DVD, with noticeably less visible element damage, better color and compression, and the expected compositional and resolution improvements associated with a 16:9 enhanced widescreen presentation. That being said, the film itself is still a bit soft and grainy compared to most modern productions, which may be related to the modest budget, but could also be an intentional choice to emphasize the nostalgic tone of the piece. While film element damage is less frequent than the prior DVD, it is still noticeable.
Audio is presented as a Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track which is consistent with the film's initial theatrical presentation and every presentation since. It is a solid if unremarkable mix that gets the job done. I noticed upon this listening that the film actually uses very little score that is not emanating from sources established on screen. An alternate language dub is available via a French Dolby Digital 1.0 track.
All of the extras are presented in 16:9 enhanced widescreen with Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo audio unless otherwise indicated below.
The most informative behind the scenes extra on this special edition is the Commentary by Peter Billingsley and Director/Co-Writer Bob Clark. Billingsley is deferential to Clark for most of the track, and does a good job of jogging his memory and asking him questions that evoke interesting anecdotes about the film, Clark's affinity for the material, their collaborators, and a few more esoteric topics. This is an entertaining and informative commentary.
The film's Theatrical Trailer (2:11) is the only other extra on disc one. It goes for a somewhat slapstick satirical tone that shows that the MGM marketing folks either did not quite know what they had on their hands or they did not think anyone would want to see something that was both warm and slyly subversive.
Another Christmas Story (18:18) A retrospective featurette with Director Bob Clark and four of the juvenile actors from the film recorded 20 years later. These include Peter Billingsley ("Ralphie"), R.D. Robb ("Schwartz"), Scott Schwartz ("Flick"), and Zack Ward ("Scut Farcus"). The actors discuss being recognized from the film, on-set anecdotes, their own personal Christmas memories, and reflections on the film. There is not a lot of behind the scenes depth, but its is a lot of fun to see them as adults in a reflective mood. Director Clark offers some more technical behind the scenes anecdotes, but nothing significant that was not covered in more detail in the commentary track. These same participants appear in a number of the additional games and supplements listed below which were sourced from the same sets of interviews.
Triple Dog Dare is a trivia game hosted by Billingsley and the interview particpants from the Another Christmas Story featurette with questions ranging in difficulty from the easiest "Double Dare" to the most difficult "Triple Dog Dare". Each multiple choice response, whether right or wrong, will result in a response from one of the interviewees.
Radio is an audio feature allowing viewers to listen to readings by Jean Shepherd of two of the stories that were incorporated into the film. Flick's Tongue and The Red Ryder Story each last about a half hour (I am ballpark estimating this since I did not look at a clock, and my player's time code function was not working while they were playing).
Decoder is another game with a graphic interface resembling the "Little Orphan Annie" decoder from the film. The viewer must correctly match still images from the film with the appropriate line of dialog from that scene. Responses are greeted with comments from the interview participants from the Another Christmas Story, most frequently Zack Ward semi-in-character as Scut Farkus.
Daisy Red Rider: A History (5:19) is a brief featurette on the air rifle that was the MacGuffin from the film. It provides a brief history of the company, their product, how they tied it to the Red Ryder comic book character, the companies commitment to safety, and how it was used in the film. Interview participants include Rogers Daisy Airgun Museum Co-Curator John Ford, Retired Customer Service Manager Orin Ribar, Public Relations Manager Susan Gardner, Advertising Manager Steven Ribar, Billingsley, Clark, Robb, and Schwartz. One of the highlights of this featurette occurs at the 4:45 mark where we see a still image of Ralphie with his Red Ryder Air Rifle teaming up with Flash Gordon which is the closest we will apparently get to seeing a deleted fantasy sequence that was reportedly shot but then cut from the film.
Get a Leg up (4:3 video - 4:40) begins as a mock-tribute to the Leg Lamp, before settling in to a tongue in cheek interview between J.M. Kenny and Joe Egeberg, the owner of "One Leg Up" including a tour of the Daytona Beach, Florida facility where the legs are manufactured. Leg Lamp manufacturer Dave Smith also chimes in during the tour.
There is also one Easter Egg on each disc which can be found without too much difficulty by moving through the menus until an icon that looks like a Christmas present appears. The first disc has a script excerpt from the deleted sequence involving Ralphie's Flash Gordon fantasy. The second disc has a silly leg lamp commercial.
With the discs completely identical to the 20th Anniversary Edition from five years ago, the thing that truly sets this Ultimate Collector's Edition apart from its predecessors is the collection of physical extras. These begin with the vanilla colored cookie tin that contains all of the contents. Inside the tin, is the DVD set, with both discs packaged inside a standard Amaray-sized hard case with a hinged tray allowing it to accommodate two discs. The hard case is in turn inserted inside a cardboard slipcover which duplicates the cover art with foil enhancemnts. The DVD cover art is a small variation on the cover of the 20th Anniversary Edition, which improves on its predecessor by inserting the smaller background images. inside bulbs on a christmas tree. I also prefer the hard case to the digipack from the 20th Anniversary Edition.
The box also contains a red A Christmas Story apron with a cautionary "You'll shoot your eye out" warning emblazoned upon it, a set of four cookie cutters including one shaped like a leg lamp and one shaped like Ralphie in his bunny pajamas, and "A Christmas Story Recipe Book" booklet.
The booklet has a hard cover with an excellent faux-Norman Rockwell image of Ralphie taking a snowball in the face that was used as contemporaneous promotional art for the film when it was released. Inside are not only 13 holiday themed recipes ranging from Triple Fruit Scones to "Chinese Turkey" (aka 20 Minute Peking Duck), but also a cast list, biographical pages on Bob Clark and Jean Shepherd, and lots of color still images and quotes from the film.
A paper insert in the box offers a coupon for 20% off any order over $100 from the WB photo collection web site.
While there is nothing new under the sun as far as the on-disc contents of this Ultimate Collector's Edition which exactly replicates both discs of the 2003 20th Anniversary Two-Disc Special Edition, it is a fun and imaginative re-packaging of a decent special edition that would make a fine holiday gift for someone who does not already own the earlier 2-Disc set.