"A Bug's Life" looked so wonderful in DVD that it was almost hard to imagine it looking any better. Then along comes this Blu-ray and scene after scene is so remarkable that it blows you away. You find yourself noticing details for the first time and transfixed by the oddest things--like the irises of the eyes of the ants and the realistic depth they contain, or the surface of the grasshopper bodies, or the brilliant colors on the circus-performing butterfly. The whole film is one big wow in Hi-Def.
And of course, it's not all looks. Pixar's second animated feature was an unqualified success, and if the structure felt slightly familiar to filmgoers, it's because "A Bug's Life" is a clever adaptation of "Three Amigos," which was a comic variation of "The Magnificent Seven,"which was itself inspired by Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai." But let's stick with the Americanized western. "The Magnificent Seven" tells the story of a Mexican town plagued by bandits. They hire seven gunfighters to help defend them and their interests, and the men fight the bad guys and become heroes--though not without losses. In this Pixar full-length animated feature, it's a colony of ants that's bullied by a swarm of grasshoppers. Just as the Mexicans had to pay "tribute" to the bandits and give them food and drink, the grasshoppers extort an annual food offering from the ants in exchange for leaving them alone. They hang around for a while, wreaking havoc and scaring the ants, and their indolence and attitude is reminiscent of the old ants and grasshopper fable as well. But John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, and the Pixar crowd imbue this version with such energy and original detail that it hardly feels like a variation of anything.
Pixar excels at creating complete worlds, and the rich details support our willingness to believe in such worlds. The animators also know that characters are what make people care about a movie, and their ability to draw distinctive characters with human-like traits and personalities has been a strength right from the beginning. The ant Flik (voiced by Dave Foley) is part Everyman and part unique individual, someone who thinks that there's a better way to do the things ants have been doing for generations--an inventor who's willing to take a chance, and a voice that's willing to be heard above the crowd. But, of course, in the tradition of crackpot inventors he's also a bit bumbling, and that creates a gap between his unrequited love for ant Princess Atta (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and the public ridicule that gets heaped upon him.
The plot is set in motion when Flik accidentally knocks over the offering platform, dumping all of the grain the ants collected into the water below. The angry grasshoppers, led by Hopper (Kevin Spacey), demand even more food, and vow to return when the last leaf falls. With no time to realistically satisfy the new quota, Flik gets the idea to go to Bug Town to look for warriors to defend them. But, like the peasants from "Three Amigos," Flik mistakes entertainers for warriors and hires them for what they think will be just another performance.
And yes, there are seven (if you count a couple of pill bugs that function as a single insect unit):
--Slim (David Hyde Pierce), a walking stick who's used as a prop or weapon,
--Heimlich (Joe Ranft), a corpulent caterpillar with a German accent,
--Francis (Denis Leary), a male ladybug who gets upset when people think he's a she,
--Manny (Jonathan Harris), a praying mantis magician with a Shakespearian actor's flair,
--Gypsy Moth (Madeline Kahn), a beautiful butterfly who's the magician's assistant,
--Rosie (Bonnie Hunt), a black widow spider who displays her quick-spinning tricks,
--and Tuck/Roll (Michael McShane), two Russian-accented acrobatic pillbugs.
All were quite willing to flee the circus of P.T. Flea (voiced by Pixar good-luck charm John Ratzenberger) following a disastrous performance that brought the house down in a not-so-great way, and they're ready to go again when they realize they've been mistaken for warriors. Meanwhile, there's the precocious little Princess Dot (Hayden Panettiere) and her fellow scouts who factor into the mix, along with a caustic Queen (Phyllis Diller) and a not-so-bright brother of Hopper, hilariously played by Richard Kind ("Mad About You").
This Blu-ray comes with several exclusive bonus features, and a wonderful one is a storyboard for the first draft of "A Bug's Life" that's significantly different from the final product. Originally Flik's character was a red ant who was one of the circus performers, and he was less pure of heart than the noble bug in the final product. Also missing from the first draft was the main defense action of the movie, in which the bugs build a giant mechanical bird to try to scare off the grasshoppers. That too was added when Lasseter and Stanton considered what the first script was lacking. And it's worth mentioning that this Pixar bunch are exceptionally good judges of what works and what doesn't work, and they're not afraid to make major adjustments. The final product is a rousing tale that's full of marvels, and Blu-ray just makes it seem all the more marvelous.
"A Bug's Life" comes to Blu-ray via an AVC/MPEG-4 transfer, and it's a good one. There are not artifacts and no playback problems, and the picture quality is frankly astounding. The 3-D effect is in full-throttle--so much so that my son asked if it was 3-D. Black levels are perfect, colors are bright and true, and the surfaces really bring out the different textures that the artists have rendered on their objects, creatures, and backgrounds. The level of detail is nothing short of remarkable. It's a showpiece disc, for sure, with the picture presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
Disney went with an English DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio, with French and Spanish options in Dolby Digital 5.1 and subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish. It's a booming, robust, full-thoraxed soundtrack that delivers resonant bass and highs that aren't too tinny. What's more, Disney makes good use of the surround speakers on this mix, and the rear speakers seem to have something to say in almost every scene. They really fill the room with sound, and in a logical and natural way, too. The volume is cranked up pretty high as a default, so you may end up turning it down a bit.
Hey Disney-Pixar fans, it's worth mentioning that with your purchase of the Blu-ray of "A Bug's Life" you get a free movie ticket to see "UP" (while supplies last. And fans of digital copy will be glad that one is included here, with detailed uploading directions.
The two Blu-ray disc exclusives are "A Bug's Life: The First Draft" and a roundtable discussion. The former is really an exceptional feature, as it's an animated storyboard introduced by Lasseter and voiced by Foley that goes on for roughly 11 minutes. The roundtable features co-producers Kevin Reher and Darla K. Anderson talking at a table with co-directors Lasseter and Stanton. Intercut with footage of them talking are clips from the film and behind-the-scenes footage. It's an interesting journey back in creative time, and underscores the pressure that these people were working under. The future of the studio was in jeopardy, with so many one-hit wonders out there, and Lasseter and Stanton were conscious of the "sophomore slump" that can doom studios. But boy, did this crew come through.
If you have a Profile 2.0 player and an Internet connection you can also access the BD-Live features: Movie Chat (chat with family and friends while you watch the movie from different locations anywhere in the U.S.), Movie Challenge (test your trivia knowledge LIVE and challenge friends to different online trivia games), Movie Mail (upload a personalized video message synced to your favorite scene to someone special while they watch the movie), and Disney Movie Rewards Live (earn points by being connected and completing special BD-Live activities.
Personally, I wish studios would stop screwing around with BD-Live and their online fetish and just concentrate on playback issues. The good about Blu-ray is the picture quality, the bad is the load time, and the ugly is the sad fact that if you need to stop the movie for any reason it has to load all over again, and you can't just go back to that spot the way that you can with a DVD. Oh, Disney tried to insert a feature where you can pick up where you left off, but it wouldn't work on my player, and the menu screen froze when I tried to access scene access. Previews are more interminably long with Blu-ray because of the load time, even if you try to skip them. Until you actually get INTO the movie, it's pure torture. So why not fix the basics before trying to sell people on the bells and whistles? Do I care more about sending a friend a message with a screen capture than having the darned disc load in a reasonable amount of time and playback without glitches? Heck no.
As for the rest of the bonus features, you'll find the same extras as on the Collector's Edition DVD, including the short film "Geri's Game," the Silly Symphony "Grasshopper and the Ants" (1934), the directors' commentary (always a pleasure with these guys), a decent "Behind the Scenes of A Bug's Life," outtakes, character interviews, and story and editorial features. When you add the BD features to this bunch of extras, it makes for a nice bundle.
"A Bug's Life" is one of those films that just seems to get better with age. And in 1080p, it's Disney at its best.