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Dissecting the Classics – National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

December 22, 2018 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
Image Credit: Warner Bros.

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics . In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

Wide Release Date:
Directed By: Jeremiah S. Chechik
Written By: John Hughes
Produced By: John Hughes & Tom Jacobson
Cinematography By: Thomas E. Ackerman
Edited By: Jerry Greenberg & Michael A. Stevenson
Music By: Angelo Badalamenti
Production Company: John Hughes Entertainment
Distributed By: Warner Bros.
Chevy Chase as Clark W. Griswold
Beverly D’Angelo as Ellen Griswold
Randy Quaid as Cousin Eddie Johnson

What Do We All Know?

Last summer, one of the films I covered was National Lampoon’s Vacation, one of only a few comedies I’ve covered on this column. Doing so was definitely a set-up for covering this film as my Christmas selection, as it’s impossible to review the sequel in a vacuum. So, if you haven’t read my review of the original film, you can do so here before moving onto this one. While Christmas Vacation is not the first or last sequel to Vacation, it is the stand out. Much like the first, it became a cable television stable and through repeated viewings as earned its place as an unironic holiday classic, one that’s passed down from the generation that saw it first and onto the generations that have watched the film with their parents. But does it deserve to be?

What Went Right?

This is not going to be an especially long column. It’s the holiday season and I’ve got things to do and people to see. And that more or less sums up this movie, to be honest. The very simple premise is “What does Clark W. Griswold, not our average everyday fool, do when it’s Christmas?” The film works because it does what Vacation did – it gives Chevy Chase a movie to carry and a great supporting cast to help him out. Randy Quaid’s role as Cousin Eddie is more pronounced and we meet a half dozen in-laws, but this is still a movie about Clark trying to make sure his family has the best possible Christmas. And the world is against him, mishaps happen and we laugh at Clark’s reaction to all of it.

Where Christmas Vacation differs is that it is more explicit in showing the simple nobility of Clark. In the first film, he rolled with the punches, made jokes and did his best not to let things affect his plans. Here, we see Clark visibly disappointed by his inability to get the lights to work, we see him trying harder to get along with his extended family despite them being difficult, and we seem him emotionally devastated by not getting his Christmas bonus. It’s still funny and easy going, but there’s more weight to it. And the film drops the cynicism entirely for a sequence where Clark watches old Christmas tapes while trapped in an attic. We are made to understand that Clark is the spirit guide of every father who tried to make Christmas work in the face of adversity, and it becomes a highly sentimental and resonant film for that reason. It is a perfect tonal balance for holiday viewing.

What Went Wrong?

From where I sit, I don’t think Christmas Vacation has many missteps. Johnny Galecki isn’t anywhere near as good as Anthony Michael Hall at playing Russ, but that’s not a big deal. And comparing it to Vacation, I do think the original is much, much funnier. But overall, I think that this movie just feels like it stops short of being a better one. The climax doesn’t feel climactic, the pacing feels slightly off, and overall, it isn’t a strong movie in terms of structure. But it doesn’t really have to. This is a textbook example of how succeeding where it really counts makes up for faltering where it counts less.

And In Summary…

Christmas Vacation succeeds in its obvious goal of being a fun and sentimental holiday film, one that has a little edge but ultimately falls squarely on the positive side of Christmas cheer. The film succeeds by showing Clark W. Griswold as the man who will sacrifice anything to give his family the perfect Christmas. And notably, this depiction reflects back on the original and makes the Griswolds (and Clark in particular) more rounded, interesting and overall strong characters. Not many sequels can successfully add layers to the original, but Christmas Vacation does. I think it deserves its likely permanent spot as a beloved holiday comedy.

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Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, 12 Angry Men, Aladdin, The Wizard of Oz, Dial M For Murder, Godzilla (1954), The Hurt Locker, The Breakfast Club, Iron Man, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, Blade Runner, Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Princess Bride, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Toy Story, Star Wars – Part 1, Star Wars – Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Die Hard, Spirited Away, Airplane!, Dirty Dancing, RoboCop, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Captain America: The First Avenger, In the Heat of the Night, West Side Story, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Rocky, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Sixth Sense, The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Clerks, Goodfellas, The Avengers, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Frozen, Jaws, The Omen, The Incredibles, Life of Brian, Escape From New York, Independence Day, Ghostbusters, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Hook, Men in Black, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Double Indemnity, Lethal Weapon, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, No Country for Old Men, The Exorcist, Psycho, Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Haunting, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King, Citizen Kane, Mary Poppins

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