A BUG’S LIFE Blu-ray Review

     May 18, 2009

head-a-bugs-life.jpgHas Pixar done wrong? The closest is Cars, which is not much of a movie. One gets the sense that John Lasseter let the film get away with him on that one, or that they could not crack the structure. But other than that minor misfire, these guys are battling like superheroes.

That said, often A Bug’s Life is held as a misfire. It was released in 1998 between Toy Story and Toy Story 2, and though the film did okay, featured direct competition from Dreamworks CGI company with its Antz.  And yet A Bug’s life is a fine film, a touching movie that is only hampered by the developments of CGI.

Dave Foley is Flik, an ant who’s a crazy inventor with plans to evolve how ants get their winter savings. Kevin Spacey is Hopper, an aggressive grasshopper who controls Flik’s colony by force. Atta (Julia-Louise-Dreyfuss) is the queen to be behind current the queen (Phyllis Diller), and when Flik makes his biggest mistake, it’s her harvest that Flik messes up, leaing to a direct threat from Hopper: get me my supplies by the end of summer, or I’ll kill you. And it’s Flik who wants to stand up to Hopper when he threatens the colony. Only Atta’s sister Dot (Hayden Panettiere) believes in Flik, and so when the ants have to re-harvest for Hopper, it’s Flik who volunteers to find warriors to protect the village (think Seven Samurai) and the colony agrees thinking it will keep Flik out of their antennae.

Flik goes to the big city and unintentionally recruits a group of circus bugs, with a praying mantis Manny (Jonathan Harris), his gypsy moth wife (Madeline Kahn), a black spider named Rosie (Bonnie Hunt), two foreign beetles, a male ladybug named Francis (Dennis Leary), a caterpillar named Heimlich (Joe Ranft), and a walking stick named Slim (David Hyde-Pierce). They think Flik is a talent scout, and so they go with him to the village, but when there’s a ceremony showcasing what they must do, they want to leave, only for Flik to convince them they can beat the Grasshoppers if they follow his plan.

Though the origins of the story are obvious (Kurosawa), there’s enough going on behind the direction of John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton to give this dog some new tricks. The way the circus bugs are brought back into the fold, and when the truth is revealed it works, and the central ideas – that being a dreamer who can see great good and the collective fighting against an oppressive bourgeois who takes advantage of the worker – are enough to make this sing. When the bugs finally claim their rightful position over the grasshoppers, I find myself swept away with the truth of it. Who doesn’t want to stand down their oppressors? And such is why I’ve always found the nit-picks against the film so meaningless. The film works on its own terms.

The biggest problem with A Bug’s Life is the problem with CGI in general. The format has gotten better over the course since Toy Story, and so the film shows its age. As beautiful as some of the images are, you can really see how CGI has advanced itself by going back to a life only a decade old. Where Cel animation in some ways got worse as it got streamlined, what they could do with it has done nothing but get better, stronger, and faster.

That said, the 1080p transfer is revelatory. As great as the DVD was (one of the first films to go straight from a digital source to digital source), the film looks that much better here in widescreen (2.35:1) and 5.1 DTS-HD. The audio soundscape is nothing but immaculate, and Gary Rydstrom and his crew deserve a lot of credit for their mix. New to this set is a Filmmakers roundtable (21 min.) with Lasseter, Stanton, and producers Darla Anderson and Kevin Reher talking about the film, along with a first draft version with introduction by Lasseter (11 min.). The first draft is a totally different movie as the main character is part of the circus, and is named Red, though the whole thing is narrated by Dave Foley. The film comes with a Lasseter intro (1 min.), and also included is the influential “Grasshopper and the Ants”(8 min.) with a Stanton and Lasseter intro that shows how this early Disney cartoon was a direct influence, along with the short film Geri’s Game (5 min.), which accompanied the film upon release. Everything else is from the previous DVD release, including the commentary by Lasseter, Stanton and supervising editor Lee Unkrich, and the rest of the supplements. These are broken into sections. Pre-production has a “Fleabie Reel” with into (4 min.) that exists as an internal promo for the film, a story and editorial section to cover the storyboarding process (5 min.) a storyboard to film comparison with intro (14 min.) for three sequences, two abandoned sequences with intro (6 min.) and a research documentary with intro (5 min.).

Then there’s a design still gallery section with intro (1 min.) featuring Character and Location galleries and concept art. There’s a behind the scenes (4 min.) a voice casting featurette (4 min.) and Early Tests (5 min.) to talk about the recording sessions. Then there’s a story reel with intro (4 min.) layout with intro (3 min.) animation with intro (3 min.) and shaders and lighting pass with intro (3 min.). Then Rydstrom gets a chance to show his wares with a Sound Designer featurette (13 min.). Rounding out the set are two trailers, a still gallery for poster designs, character interviews with intro (2 min), and outtakes with the story behind them (3 min.) and both outtake reels (5 min.).  And the Blu-ray comes with a digital copy.

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