Potential movie buyers have experienced a veritable avalanche of special editions lately, with any number of old DVD favorites showing up in two, three, and even four-disc sets. In a few cases the films themselves have been remastered and improved in quality, but in most cases the films have simply been augmented by the addition of commentaries, documentaries, games, outtakes, and the like.
In the case of Disney/Pixar's computer-animated "A Bug's Life," the already excellent video of the first edition is further improved and tons of extra materials have been added to a second disc. If you don't already own the movie in one of its first editions, a recommendation for this new two-disc set is easy. However, if you do already own one of the earlier DVDs, you might question whether this new, Collector's Edition is worth the added investment. I've mentioned the first DVDs, plural, because this latest set appears to be at least the third or fourth DVD issue the Disney studios have offered of "A Bug's Life." Don't you hate decisions?
Anyway, in another of those monumental coincidences that only Hollywood could manage, in 1998 two superbly animated cartoons on the same subject from two separate studios arrived in theaters just weeks apart, Disney's "A Bug's Life" and DreamWorks' "Antz." Comparisons were inevitable at the time of their release, and now that both are available on DVD, comparisons are unavoidable. If you want my advice in a nutshell, though, buy them both. They are visually stunning.
"A Bug's Life" has the more juvenile story line and the cuter, more Disney-ish, child-oriented characters. However, although it is more obviously aimed at younger audiences than "Antz," it does not necessarily mean that it's any less entertaining for adults. It may not have Woody Allen's dry wit, as "Antz" does, but it is the more colorful and more action-packed of the two films.
The star of "A Bug's Life" is an ant named Flik, perhaps a distant cousin of Allen's angst-ridden Z. Flik is an inveterate inventor, always thinking up new schemes and ideas. When we first meet him he's trying out a new cultivator he's built that's more trouble than it's worth. When Flik's anthill gets beset by their perenniel enemies, the grasshoppers, Flik decides to seek help. He enlists the aid of a group of flea-bitten flea circus performers whom he mistakes for gallant warriors. And that's actually about all there is to the plot. The grasshoppers bully the ants; Flik finds help; together they figure something out; Flik and the circus players become heroes.
So unlike "Antz," where dialogue, thoughts, and story were foremost, "A Bug's Life" relies almost exclusively on sights and sound. Fortunately, it succeeds wildly. The voices in "A Bug's Life" are provided by Dave Foley (as Flik), Kevin Spacey (as Hopper, the villainous head grasshopper), Phyllis Diller, Dennis Leary, Jonathan Harris, Madeline Kahn, Roddy McDowall, and a host of others.
I've said in the past that I am immune to most cartoons. "Snow White," "Pinocchio," "Fantasia," "Toy Story 2," "Shrek," "Monsters, Inc.," and maybe "Aladdin"; that's about it. But I must admit I was struck by the sheer beauty of "A Bug's Life." It has far more variety in its range of characters and far more color in its settings than "Antz." For instance, "Antz" was largely done in shades of brown, eight million brown ants in brown holes, while "A Bug's Life" comes in all shades of all colors of insects and plants imaginable. It is truly a feast for the eyes.
The DVD transfer is better than ever and continues to rank among the very best I've seen. The video is now THX certified and enhanced for 16x9 televisions. I noticed in the first edition that colors seemed to a very small degree faded, a condition that is now rectified. This transfer has a higher bit rate than the previous one, hues are a shade darker and richer, and definition is, if anything, even sharper. It is quite lovely to look at.
It is still amazing to me watching the computer-generated graphics bring so much three dimensionality to all of the characters and objects on screen. And those grasshoppers are some mean dudes. They are the only insects in the film that look truly like insects, and that means they look like they've just stepped out of a space-alien horror movie. Scary, but comic, too. Remember, this is Disney. As before, there are no signs anywhere of digital artifacts, line shimmer, dancing pixels, or what have you. Just pure picture.
Now comes the interesting part. Buena Vista offer the film in two screen formats. The first is the film's original theatrical widescreen, measuring an approximately 2.13:1 ratio across a normal television. The second screen format is a specially recomposed full-frame at 1.33:1. But, surprise, thanks to the reformatting techniques used, the full-frame picture occasionally reveals more (added) image on the top and bottom of the screen than the widescreen picture and with only a small loss of information at the sides. Of course, in most scenes the widescreen is clearly the superior choice with more side information, but I can tell you, for a change, that the standard, full-frame version is not entirely to be shunned. In any case, both screen sizes are located on disc one, with a choice of either format coming on the opening menu, thus making comparisons and personal preferences easy to determine.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound, too, is superb. Channel separation, dynamics, and frequency range are all are first rate, although the soundtrack is perhaps a tad light in deep bass and impact. But it's still fun listening to the various insects flying back and forth over one's head. The audio and visuals add to the total excitement of the story.
Disc one contains the widescreen and full-frame presentations of the film with the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, English and French spoken languages, and English captions for the hearing impaired. In the widescreen mode only there is an audio commentary with director John Lassiter, co-director Andrew Stanton, and film editor Lee Unkrich and an optional music-only track, while in the full-frame mode only there is a sound effects-only track. In addition, disc one provides a THX Optimizer set of audiovisual tests and thirty-six scene selections, including outtakes.
Disc two contains the legions of bonus materials we expect, much of which may be of more interest to adults than to kids. These extras are divided into eight sections, most sections and their subdivisions being introduced by various of the filmmakers. The first section, the longest, is titled "Pre-Production." It includes early production tests, original story treatments, pitch boards, storyboards-to final-film with split-screen comparisons, and abandoned sequences; plus, segments on research, design, characters, locations, concept art, and color scripts. The second section is "Production." It includes a "Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Creation of A Bug's Life" promotional featurette that last about three minutes; a voice-casting featurette at four minutes; some early tests at five minutes; and a progression demonstration of layout and animation.
Section three is called "Sound Design," a thirteen-minute exploration of the audio aspects of the film, voices, sound effects, and the like. Section four is "Release," which includes theatrical and video-release trailers and spots, plus a featurette on the way Pixar went about reframing the original widescreen film to a 1.33:1 ratio video format. They explain they added new artwork, moved characters and objects closer together, and utilized old-fashioned panning and cropping. Section five is about the closing-credits "Outtakes," of which there are two sets. How can you have outtakes in an animated cartoon? It's a joke, of course, but watching these bugs goof up like real actors is a kick, and along with Randy Newman's delightful theme song they make up one of the best parts of the show. Six is "Geri's Game," Pixar's 1997 Academy Award-winning animated short film. Seven is a sneaky trailer for Pixar's new film, "Finding Nemo." And eight is "A Bug's Land," two interactive activity games designed for two very different dispositions.
If you've seen "Antz" or "Shrek" or "Monsters, Inc." and liked them, you'll like "A Bug's Life" as well. Even if you're an old grump about cartoons as I am, you'll enjoy "A Bug's Life." Like looking through a kaleidoscope, there's always something new and fascinating to see. Add the new anamorphic video and the 5.1 Surround sound and you've got a sensory treat that's hard to resist.