Johnson Family Vacation review by Mike Long

Unless you've been living...well in a place where you don't get movie news, you've no doubt noticed all of the remakes which have been inundating theaters recently. Remakes of old films and foreign films seem to be the flavor of the day. But, there is also a new kind of remake surfacing in theaters, in which older films which were aimed at one specific audience are being given a makeover so that they appeal to a different audience. The recent box-office bomb Soul Plane was labeled as a remake of Airplane! for urban audiences, and a similar take happens with Johnson Family Vacation, a movie which takes many of the familiar themes from the Chevy Chase Vacation films and re-tools them.

Cedric the Entertainer stars in Johnson Family Vacation as Nate Johnson, a successful insurance salesman who plans to take his family on a vacation from Los Angeles to Missouri for a family reunion. This trip is very important to Nate because he and his brother Mack (Steve Harvey) are very competitive and Nate wants to win the "Family of the Year" trophy, but, more importantly, the trip may be a chance for Nate to patch things up with his estranged wife, Dorothy (Vanessa Williams), from whom he's been separated for three months. (Nate didn't support her decision to go back to school.) So, Nate and Dorothy load the kids -- Nikki (Solange Knowles), D.J. (Bow Wow), and Destiny (Gabby Soleil) -- into the SUV (which was incorrectly detailed at the body shop) and hit the road. The trip is a series of miscues and misadventures, as the Johnson's encounter an insane hitchhiker (Shannon Elizabeth), an angry cop, and visit a bizarre Native American Casino. Also, Nate creates some awkward moments as he tries to rekindle his relationship with Dorothy. As it looks like the family may not make it to the reunion, Nate begins to wonder if he'll ever get that trophy.

It would be very easy to dismiss Johnson Family Vacation as simply a Black version of National Lampoon's Vacation, and there are many moments which are lifted part-and-parcel from the Vacation. The state of Nate's SUV mirror's Clark Griswold's purchase of the Family Truckster. The visit to the casino is not unlike the Griswold's experience in Dodge City. The scene with the motorcycle cop and the scene in which Nate is trying to woo Dorothy on their first stop definitely have a Vacation vibe to them. It's almost as if the filmmakers thought, "Hey, there's a whole generation and culture out there who may not have seen the Vacation films, so let's do our own version." The downside of that is that you've seen those Chevy Chase film, then you're going to be unconsciously making a checklist of the similarities.

However, there are some things working in Johnson Family Vacation's favor. The film could have easily plowed into "Urban" film territory and alienated much of the audience, but that doesn't really happen. While the situations in the film may be clichéd (and possibly stolen), they are things that most anyone who has been on a family vacation can relate to. For far too long, there have been “Black” films which are aimed squarely at a Black audience, but Johnson Family Vacation doesn’t fall into that trap. Another part of that equation is Cedric the Entertainer himself. He is the highlight of this film and supplies 95% of the funny moments in the film. His delivery is excellent and he can be funny both when he’s being angry and when he’s being vulnerable. I’m not a fan of Steve Harvey, but he has some funny lines as well. Johnson Family Vacation sports a great cast and has some humorous moments, but the unoriginal nature of the film hurts it, and ultimately it’s too lightweight for its own good.

Johnson Family Vacation travels to DVD courtesy of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. The DVD is a “flipper” and it contains both the widescreen and full-frame versions of the film. For the purposes of this review, only the widescreen version was viewed. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The transfer is unremarkable, but still adequate. The image is sharp and clear, and is relatively free from grain. The colors look good and are never over saturated. The landscape scenes show a nice amount of depth. Artifacting is kept to a minimum and there is little edge enhancement. The primary audio track on the DVD is a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. This track provides clear dialogue and shows no overt defects. The use of surround sound is sparse, but effective, and the film’s hip-hop soundtrack allows the subwoofer to get into the act.

The Johnson Family Vacation DVD contains a few extras, including two audio commentaries. The first commentary features stars Cedric the Entertainer and Bow Wow, director Christopher Erskin, and producer Eric C. Rhone -- it seems that Bow Wow was recorded separately and edited in. This is an average commentary, as the group discusses the making of the film, focusing on the actors and the script. Rhone and Erskin talk some about the film’s budget and how they came to work on the project. The second commentary has screenwriters Todd R. Jones and Earl Richey Jones. These siblings talk about the development of the script and where many of the ideas come from. The DVD contains 18 deleted and extended scenes which can be viewed with or without commentary from director Erskin. (There is a “Play All” feature.) Some of these scenes are actual dailies which show alternate or different versions of scenes. “Johnson Family Vacation: Max on Set” (13 minutes) is a “making of” featurette which contains some behind-the-scenes footage and comments from the stars, as it explores the story and the characters.

4 out of 10 Jackasses

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