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MOVIE INFO

Director:
Christopher Erskin
Cast:
Cedric the Entertainer, Vanessa L. Williams, Solange Knowles, Lil' Bow Wow, Gabby Soleil, Shannon Elizabeth, Steve Harvey, Aloma Wright
Writing Credits:
Todd R. Jones, Earl Richey Jones

Tagline:
Wrong turn in Arizona. No brakes in Colorado. Arrested in Kansas. It's the ultimate family trip.

Synopsis:
Buckle up for the wildest road trip of the year! Cedric the Entertainer leads an all star cast in this hilarious comedy adventure about a misfit family trying to survive outrageous obstacles (including each other) on a cross-country trek to their annual family reunion. Along the way, they'll battle a psycho truck driver, pick up a voodoo-loving hitchhiker, and "expose" the dangers of hot tubbing in a strange hotel. Co-starring Vanessa Williams, Bow Wow, Shannon Elizabeth and Steve Harvey, Johnson Family Vacation is packed with laughs and fueled by fun!

Box Office:
Budget
$12 million.
Opening Weekend
$9.375 million on 1317 screens.
Domestic Gross
$30.977 million.

MPAA:
Rated PG-13

DVD DETAILS
Presentation:
Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9
Fullscreen 1.33:1
Audio:
English Dolby Digital 5.1
Subtitles:
English
Spanish
Closed-captioned

Runtime: 96 min.
Price: $27.98
Release Date: 8/10/2004

Bonus:
• Audio Commentary with Director Christopher Erskin, Producers Eric C. Rhone and Paul Hall, and Actors Cedric the Entertainer and Bow Wow
• Audio Commentary with Writers Todd R. Jones and Earl Richey Jones
• Deleted Scenes and Outtakes with Optional Commentary
• “Hitting the Road with the Johnsons” Featurette
• Inside Look


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EQUIPMENT
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RELATED REVIEWS


Johnson Family Vacation (2004)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 2, 2004)

Why do I have the feeling the pitch meeting for 2004’s Johnson Family Vacation consisted of five words? “It’s Vacation - with black folks!” Cast in the Chevy Chase role, we find Cedric the Entertainer as conservative insurance executive Nate Johnson. He goes with his teen son DJ (Bow Wow) to pick up their SUV from the dealer. He wanted an 8-track player installed, but they turned it into a macked-out ride instead. Against his best judgment, he feels forced to take it because he doesn’t have time to wait.

Nate needs to transport his family from Los Angeles to Missouri for his family reunion. He competes with his brother Mack (Steve Harvey) for the “Family of the Year” trophy and his mother’s (Aloma Wright) approval. This becomes tough because he and wife Dorothy (Vanessa Williams) are on the outs and have been separated for a few months. He’s unhappy that she attends school to become a CPA, which led to their tension. Nonetheless, she agrees to come to the reunion, and in addition to DJ, they cart along teen daughter Nikki (Solange Knowles) and six-year-old girl Destiny (Gabby Soleil).

While Vacation features a father obsessed with getting his family to an amusement park. Johnson presents a dad totally focused on making sure his clan makes it to the reunion on time. The motivations are different, though. Clark Griswold wanted to achieve the perfect family vacation, while Nate just wants to top his older brother Mack. Johnson also spends more time at its destination, as the actual reunion fills the last third of the movie.

Nonetheless, the two flicks utilize exceedingly similar structures. Both open with scenes in which the dads pick up their vehicles but something goes wrong. From there, we watch their drives, both of which head across about half of the country. While the Griswolds moved from Chicago to LA, the Johnsons head from SoCal to the Midwest.

Although Vacation is a good launching point for an update, Johnson fails to improve on the earlier model or even remotely approach its pleasures. Granted, I didn’t think the Chevy Chase flick excelled. A mix of highs and lows, it offered more than a few good laughs, but a lot of its gags fell flat.

Compared to Johnson, however, Vacation felt like a piece of comedic genius. A messy mishmash of a film, Johnson barely bothered to develop a story or characters, as it worked relentlessly to assault us with jokes, most of which made little sense within the context of the tale.

Sure, Vacation also acted as little more than a loose vehicle for comedic sketches, but at least the characters demonstrated internal consistency and evolved as the story progressed. Part of that film’s fun came from the sight of Clark’s gradual breakdown. Nothing nearly as interesting shows up in Johnson, which totally sacrifices logic to push gags.

This makes it genuinely bizarre to watch, as the movie features so little continuity. When we meet Nate, we see him as extremely conservative and cautious, but we’re soon supposed to see him as someone willing to drive 88 in a 65 MPH zone and litter recklessly the whole time? Sure, since that sets up a situation that lands the entire clan in jail. Who cares that this makes no sense? It’s jokes uber alles here!

Much of the movie feels like it’s missing footage. For example, one scene goes far out of its way to set up a family visit to a “real” Indian village. However, it then immediately abandons the conceit, as the clan never goes there, and we get no explanation why.

These situations abound in Johnson, as much of the flick makes little sense. One big sequence features a battle between DJ and Nate over what music to play in the SUV, as the youngster gets frustrated that he’s stuck with his pop’s selections. However, a few minutes later, we watch DJ listening through headphones! Why not do that in the first place?

Perhaps we could forgive these sins if the movie itself was funny, but it’s far from that. Cedric occasionally almost verges on the edge of giving us something amusing, but the sentiment soon passes. He also plays Nate’s Uncle Earl, whose semi-incoherent speech nearly makes him amusing, but as with everything else, the movie beats the bit into submission and loses any mirth it once had.

Johnson Family Vacation includes some good talent, and an update of Vacation is a premise ripe for exploration. Unfortunately, the movie totally fails to exploit its potential. Instead, it pursues only the lamest of gags and suffers from thin, inconsistent characters who exist just to serve the tepid jokes. An exercise in unfunny inevitability, we see every bit approach us from a mile away, and almost none of them amuse.

End credits bonus: stick through the final scroll and you’ll hear more from Uncle Earl.


The DVD Grades: Picture A-/ Audio B/ Bonus B

Johnson Family Vacation appears in both an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 and in a fullscreen version on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the widescreen image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Only the letterboxed picture was reviewed for this article. Virtually no problems cropped up, as Johnson offered a terrific transfer.

Sharpness seemed good. I saw almost no signs of softness. Instead, the image looked tight and well defined. Jagged edges and moiré effects created no problems, and only a smidgen of edge enhancement appear sporadically. As for print flaws, the image seemed clean and free from various defects.

Johnson presented a natural and vivid palette. The colors consistently looked vibrant and lively. They showed no signs of noise, bleeding, or other issues, as the hues were rich and lively. Black levels seemed deep and dense, while shadows came across as appropriately thick but not too heavy. Overall, the picture looked solid.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Johnson Family Vacation was decent but unexceptional. However, I didn’t expect much from a flick of this sort, and the mix served the story acceptably well. The soundfield heavily emphasized the front channels. Music presented good stereo imaging, and effects popped up from the sides well enough to create a decent sense of environment. Not a lot happened, though. Occasionally elements moved from side to side, but mostly the track simply showed general ambience. The surrounds mostly just reinforced the front speakers and added only a little unique audio.

The quality of the sound was good. Speech came across as natural and distinct, and I noticed no issues connected to edginess or intelligibility. Effects played a small role in the proceedings, but they seemed acceptably accurate and clear. They made occasional use of the subwoofer; for instance, the incident with the semi brought the bass to life nicely. Dynamics for the music also seemed strong. The score was clean and lively, while the various songs demonstrated nice range and low-end response. Johnson lacked the ambition for a grade above a “B”, but it sounded good for what it offered.

When we head to the supplements of Johnson Family Vacation, we find a mix of elements. Most significant are the two audio commentaries. The first one comes from director Christopher Erskin, producers Paul Hall and Eric C. Rhone, and actors Cedric the Entertainer and Bow Wow. It sounded like all of them sat together for a running, screen-specific track, though it seemed like some - but not all - of Bow Wow’s statements were taped separately and edited into the whole.

Despite the high number of participants, little useful information emerges during this self-congratulatory chat. For the most part, the guys narrate the story, tell us how great everyone was, and pick out their favorite gags. They also frequently make sure we know how positive the audience reaction was to the humor, as we often hear about all the big laughs they garnered. A few production details emerge like the fact that they shot all of the actors in LA and never went on the road. In addition, a couple of decent stories pop up as well, such as when Cedric tells us about the negative reaction he got from Marvin Gaye’s wife and daughter due to a bit that mentions the singer. Otherwise, this commentary plods along with little more than back-patting and happy talk.

For the second commentary, we hear from writers Todd R. Jones and Earl Richey Jones, both of whom sit together for their running, screen-specific discussion. While an improvement over the prior track, this one still demonstrates a lot of flaws. On the positive side, the brothers tell us about changes made to the original script, their collaborative process, and what it’s like to try to get a movie done in Hollywood. A few good production notes appear along the way, and the piece picks up during the last act; the writers become more informative as the session progresses. However, they also have the tendency to simply narrate the movie, though they display much less back-slapping and praise compared to the first commentary. The Richeys toss out enough useful information to make this track worthwhile for fans, but it remains lackluster.

Next we locate a featurette called Hitting the Road with the Johnsons. In this 12-minute and 50-second piece, we see the standard mix of movie snippets, shots from the set, and interviews. We hear from Bow Wow, Cedric, Erskin, and actors Vanessa Williams, Solange Knowles, and Steve Harvey. Utterly promotional, the program tells us about the story and characters. It also makes sure we know what a great product it is. Skip this extended trailer.

The disc includes 18 deleted scenes and outtakes. When viewed via the “Play All” option, these fill 23 minutes and 37 seconds. Some of this material consists of alternate takes and extensions, but we get some major deleted elements. There’s a subplot in which Mack finds out that Nate and Dorothy separated, and we also find a long scene at a convenience store that shows off some of the SUV’s features. We also see a lot more of Nate and the highway cop. None of this stuff’s funnier than the material in the final film, but at least we find significant footage.

We can watch these with or without commentary from director Erskin. He does his job here. He tosses in remarks about why the snippets didn’t make the cut, and he adds occasional production notes.

We find promos for Bill Cosby as Himself and the Johnson soundtrack plus an anti-drug public service announcement. Another ad shows up in Inside Look, an “exclusive insider’s look at upcoming projects from Fox”. This presents a featurette for Taxi, a Jimmy Fallon effort. We get a synopsis plus notes from actors Fallon and Queen Latifah in this very promotional piece.

Although Johnson Family Vacation had the potential to give us a solid variant on National Lampoon’s Vacation, it fails to succeed. Instead, the movie bashes us with relentlessly lowbrow humor and incoherence so blatant I wonder if the editor actually looked at the footage as he cut the flick. At least the DVD is good, as it presents very strong picture quality, effective audio, and a decent roster of extras. Despite the disc’s positive execution, I can’t recommend it. Skip this Vacation.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.1935 Stars Number of Votes: 31
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