DVD - Image A+ Sound A+ Extras A+
BD - Image A+ Sound A+ Extras A+
screenplay by Andrew Stanton and Donald McEnery & Bob Shaw
directed by John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton
by Walter Chaw The Seven Samurai by way of ¡Three Amigos!, Pixar's A Bug's Life stands as the company's sole artistic disappointment, suffering from a weightlessness that is particularly troubling given that it is also the only Pixar production whose characters don't interact with the human world. The revelation embedded in its relative failure is that the animation studio is better at satire than it is at fantasy--not a terrible thing, for sure (after all, anime legend Hayao Miyazaki has never made a film independent of the human realm), the picture still points to the damning difficulty of creating a fantasy unto itself and based on alien quirk that is more than an exercise in Flintstones-era visual punning wrapped around a familiar underdog-uplift narrative.
That said, the story of Flik (the non-descript vocal stylings of Dave Foley), a free-thinking ant in a notoriously Orwellian society who is exiled on a doomed quest--the recruiting of a group of warriors to defend his colony from invading grasshoppers)--that he, buggering the expectation of the queen (Phyllis Diller) and queen elect Atta (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), actually succeeds in completing, is not without its moments. A Bug's Life is visually splendid, evocative of the romantic monumentalism of John Ford (and, of course, Akira Kurosawa's chief influence is Ford), particularly in an opening pastoral and a mist-shrouded reveal, with numerous images and references that presage the flat-brilliance of Pixar's The Searchers redux Toy Story 2; the cult of childhood of Monsters Inc.; and the cathedral lighting, water effects, and parallel construction of Finding Nemo. Disney cultists will note the "Casey Jr." animal cracker box used by the "hero" circus performers as conveyance (as well as the name "J. Grant" as the snack's creator) as being in-reference to Dumbo's circus train and one of that film's legendary writer/animators (Joe Grant).
What hurts the picture is, surprisingly, the dullness of its ant heroes. Visually indistinguishable (compared to the simultaneously released Antz, not to mention Pixar's other features), they are voiced with no real flair--the highlight coming in a Joe Ranft-supervised scene involving a hysterical children's mural and play. Not surprisingly, perhaps, said scene comes the closest to lampooning a human peccadillo, the ritualistic celebration of children's pageants among the middle class, and it does so without the anthropomorphic joshing of a "bug bar" set earlier in the picture: one the stuff of gentle/keen observation, the other the stuff of fifties-era stand-up. A Bug's Life is, alas, too much the latter--something verging on smug and self-congratulatory, but more comfortably described as convenient and, most damning, unaffecting. The worst thing to say about A Bug's Life is that of all of Pixar's films, it's the first and thus far only one whose pleasures are almost completely reserved for the diaper set.
Temporarily out of print and now returned in a(nother) "Collector's Edition" (or as Pixar guru John Lasseter refers to it, "The Super-Genius Version"), DisneyDVD offers the film in a roomy 2.33:1 anamorphic video transfer that defines the idea of a showcase disc. Representative of a direct-to-digital port, the image is the sort of thing that makes eyes bleed in a good way: impossibly vibrant and detailed, there are of course no artifacts or banding problems--all the usual suspects of suspect digital transfers are non-existent here. Technically speaking, the THX-certified A Bug's Life: Collector's Edition is the pinnacle of the medium: a digital picture rendered in a digital presentation, and frankly amazing. Watching the disc on a 16x9 monitor is something like going to church for the tech-geek--so gorgeous that it renders HiDef almost moot. (George Lucas, eat your heart out.) Similarly impressive is the main Dolby 5.1 audio mix, which makes such canny usage of all six channels that the experience is completely enveloping. I'd wager that your rear-channels have seldom received so vigorous (and well-choreographed) a workout. It's a lot like real-life, in fact--the finest praise I can muster.
The first disc (of two) features the picture in the abovementioned widescreen aspect ratio as well as in a fullscreen presentation that, shockingly, is not entirely without interest, as it offers the expected loss of information to the sides but an increase in vertical information due to the diligent efforts of the Pixar posse to "recompose" for 1.33:1. (See example above.) While still (and never) ideal, this is the rare cut-job that isn't a crying shame--though within that praise is the seed of something worrying. Using various techniques, Pixar restages some scenes to move characters closer together, adds artwork to the top and bottom of said scenes, and ultimately resorts to the same sort of cropping and pan-and-scan strategies employed by folks with less imagination. In many ways, this sort of revision is more disturbing than a straight hack job in that in the process of making the truncated transfer more "faithful" to the source, something entirely new and, arguably, more destructive of the original vision than an artless butchery has been created. A comparison between the opening sequences in widescreen and fullscreen demonstrates the difference between a John Ford composition and a "Little House on the Prairie" composition. Needless to say, the disparity is heartbreaking for anyone serious about film. A Bug's Life's fullscreen recomposition is dazzling, it's true, but ultimately as empty a technical achievement as the film itself...and many times more potentially damaging to the film medium as a whole.
left: original image; right: "recomposed" for fullscreen
Special features on the first disc are limited to dialogue-free audio tracks (see contents listing at right for specific configurations)--which largely serve to highlight that for as lovely as A Bug's Life is, it lacks the narrative vividness of silent film--and a feature-length commentary by co-directors Lasseter and Andrew Stanton in addition to editor Lee Unkrich. Jovial if lapping over occasionally into breathless hyperbole, the yakker is weakest when it fawns over the voice actors (interestingly enough, central protagonist Foley is overlooked in the rush to praise Louis-Dreyfus, Roddy McDowell (in his last role), Diller, and Spacey), and strongest when it betrays the joy not of visionariness (that's boring, too--there's only so much one can hear that something has never been seen before before one offers that the inside of my colon has also never made it into a motion picture), but of a collaborative effort engaged in honest pursuit of quality. A backdoor nod to the nondescript visual uniformity of the ants is made in the revelation that a flower headdress given Diller's queen ant was an afterthought meant to emulate Diller's fright-wig identity. It occurs that it's a pity that similar recognition of the need for distinction among the ant-letariat is not made. The talker is only available in conjunction with the widescreen version--a nod to limited space, perhaps, though I like to think of it, in Pollyanna-fashion, as a quiet expression of preference.
Disc 2 is a special-features archive divided into a main menu and sub-menus:
Fleebie Reel: Pixar's Wonderful World of Bugs is a hysterical promotional reel made in-house and featuring some puppetry with a flea hand-puppet that is so funny by itself it evokes the madcap joy of the original "Muppet Show". Featuring a few early animation tests, the piece is too short at 4-minutes but offers valuable insight into the ways that Pixar presumably had to answer to their Disney masters--and does so with wit and style.
Story and Editorial is further broken down, each segment, as all segments, introduced by Lasseter and Stanton:
- "Original Treatment" is a static recreation of the first pitch made to Disney
- "Storyboard Pitch" is a video of Ranft's pitch of the circus scene augmented by conceptual sketches
- "Storyboard to Film Comparison" of the "Dot's Rescue" sequence
- "Abandoned Sequences" features animated sketches of an original opening that evokes a little of the Watership Down myth-making prologue and a "Live Nude Earthworm Mud Wrestling" sequence that would have given A Bug's Life a little ribaldry the saccharine production sorely misses
Research is a light nature reel of ants and other six-legged beasties trundling around.
Design features a lot of art galleries for each character and location as well as an illustrated "shooting" script and other errata.
Behind the Scenes of "A Bug's Life" is a short (4 min.) B-reel promotional feature that is heavy on the Disney and short on insight.
Voice Casting is basically an extension of the previous with interviews with voice talent that is invariably fawning.
Early Tests features Bill Reeves (supervising technical director) introducing early production tests that take a look at various problems of movement, lighting, and movement and how they were eventually solved for the film. Interesting if, for no other reason than the dedication of Pixar's artists to conjure the illusion of not life, exactly, but physical possibility.
Progression Demonstration features the "Flaming Death" sequence broken down into story reel, layout, animation, and shaders and lighting in a presentation that one can either view separately with introductions from the technicians in charge of each respective phase, or in a branching vignette that can be navigated freely with the use of the "Angle" button on your remote. Nifty.
A fascinating documentary narrated by sound designer Gary Rydstrom, who reveals the secrets of the sound effects in A Bug's Life as things as diverse as raw crab crackling, fingernails on a chalkboard, flapping 35mm ends on reels, kazoos, blowing on playing cards, and on and on. Each sound is demonstrated to black screen before brought together in the final product. An insightful and genuinely entertaining look at the low-fi roots of certain elements of a hi-fi picture.
Theatrical Release features trailers and TV spots as well as an awful "Character Interviews" short that features four of the characters from the picture being "interviewed" by some lackey. The original voice actors don't appear to have participated, making this embarrassing international marketing ploy resemble one of those cheapo Disney direct-to-video (one hopes) knock-offs.
Video Release features a short featurette on the reframing process as well as a Reframing Examples comparison piece that serves as as good an argument as any that I've seen for the rape perpetrated on source materials when it's cropped to fit a square, decidedly non-'scope container.
Starting with a really bad featurette on the outtakes that is basically the creators and actors laughing set to Randy Newman's syrupy theme song, both sets of "outtakes" are presented here to diminishing delight. A fad whose niftiness has come and gone (and was only ever interesting for the "reality TV" aspect of Jackie Chan's documented laundry list of injuries), that some folks still insert blooper reels into their end-credits speaks to the slowness of many to smell the proverbial coffee.
FINDING NEMO TRAILER:
"Fun Facts #25" trailer featuring Bruce the Shark and Men At Work's "Down Under" which is, sadly for this child of the eighties, not actually in the movie.
A BUG'S LIFE GAME:
Standard point-and-clicker for the under-five squad.
The entire production is housed in a slip-covered keep case with holographically enhanced artwork. Originally published: July 13, 2003.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers "This new Bug's Life be pimpstylin'," I inexplicably scribbled in my notepad, but...yeah, that about sums it up. New to the Blu-ray release of A Bug's Life is a highly entertaining "Filmmakers' Roundtable" (21 mins., 1.78:1/1080p) that offers some welcome retrospection to balance out a batch of present-tense and slightly stale extras that debuted a decade ago. Reuniting director John Lasseter, co-director Andrew Stanton, and producers Kevin Reher and Darla Anderson, the piece finds the wistful foursome bittersweetly haunted by the spectre of the late Joe Ranft, a storyboard artist who also provided voices for all of Pixar's features up to and including Cars. There's a hilarious "Today Show" anecdote I shan't spoil as well as oblique acknowledgement that A Bug's Life is not considered the star quarterback in the company's line-up, leading to its omission from a list of Pixar titles in the trailer for The Incredibles and subsequent redemption in the form of an annual A Bug's Life appreciation week now held at the studio.
"A Bug's Life: The First Draft" (11 mins., 1.78:1/1080p) reconstructs the original, deeply-flawed story treatment by slickly marrying Ranft's thumbnail sketches to narration from Flik himself, Dave Foley. Say what you will about the finished product, but the rewrite process did yield a better film and set Pixar on a righteous path towards valuing the screenplay above virtually any other developmental consideration. Lastly, returning from the 1999 SE (it was dropped from the 2003 reissue to accommodate Finding Nemo promos) is the 1934 Silly Symphony The Grasshopper and the Ants (8 mins., 1.33:1/1080p), which Lasseter and Stanton say in an optional intro substantially inspired A Bug's Life. (I imagine they're referring to aesthetics.) Herein, a grasshopper (Pinto Colvig, I presume--he sounds just like Goofy) fiddles, Nero-like, while ants collect food for the winter. Come the first snowfall, the grasshopper is starving to death and takes refuge with the ants, who let him stay as long as he literally sings for his supper. Its Aesopian sanctimony is made palatable by some witty animation, and you'll be singing the grasshopper's tune, "The World Owes Me a Living" (later to become Goofy's theme and a hit for Shirley Temple), for days. Unfortunately, detracting from the fact that this is the first Disney short to get a HiDef transfer are registration issues that frequently throw the image out of focus. (Note, too, that Geri's Game has likewise been upgraded to 1080p but misformatted so that its 1.66 dimensions are windowboxed instead of pillarboxed.) Presented in 480i but enhanced for 16x9 displays, the remaining supplements are as Walter discussed below, though the no-longer-relevant featurette about "recomposing" was axed for this edition along with the interactive game, Finding Nemo ephemera, and effects-only track.
As for the 2.35:1, 1080p rendering of A Bug's Life proper, it's predictably flawless; what I thought were "hot," solarized patches on the characters in standard-def are here revealed to be a subtle shine to their shell-like skin. That being said, in many ways NTSC acted as a concealer, so caveat emptor that the ultra-high resolution makes A Bug's Life look that much more dated and primitive next to something like WALL·E. Neither has the mix aged particularly gracefully: While the disc's 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio comes amazingly close to matching my memory of screening the film in a THX auditorium, Gary Rydstrom's sound design is relentlessly manic in the fashion of late-'90s blockbusters and low-rent kid's fare. Circa 2009, the whole movie is like watching Bambi try to stand up on the frozen pond. A "Maximize Your Home Theatre" tool plus Sneak Peeks at "Disney Movie Rewards," Race to Witch Mountain, Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure, "Disney Parks," Up, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Monsters, Inc., and the Blu-ray promo reel round out the platter, with those last four trailers also cuing up on startup. A DVD inside the keepcase contains the requisite Digital Copy of the film. Originally published: May 11, 2009.
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