5/29/2009

Blu-ray Review: A Bug's Life (1998)



Now Available on Blu-ray




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Since Disneyland is known as "The Happiest Place on Earth," it only made sense that Walt Disney Home Entertainment would become associated with Pixar Animation Studios. And this is especially fitting for--as every successive behind-the-scenes making-of-documentary has revealed over the course of Pixar’s unprecedented string of hits—Pixar Studios seems to be the happiest place on Earth to work.



Obviously not getting the memo that most people loathe their jobs, every time I catch a glimpse of Pixar-- and especially as witnessed in the recent feature-length documentary included on the WALL-E multi-disc DVD and Blu-ray release as well as in a few shorter extras like the "Filmmakers’ Round Table" on A Bug’s Life--it seems as though while they work incredibly hard at Pixar, their work is made all the more joyful since it’s derived from “play.”



And it’s precisely this sense of exhilaration of, “hey, I wonder if I could…” or drawing inspiration in not only the sources that amazed the filmmakers in their own lives but the very bugs and leaves outside their building that makes the films crafted by Pixar some of the freshest and most blissfully upbeat works being released today whether they’re animated, computer animated, or consist entirely of live action.



And over the years, they've managed to tap right into what makes a great story in addition to pinpointing how to marry the idea of a hero’s journey (and indeed the Joseph Campbell paradigm is a Pixar staple as it was for Disney) with so many inventive jokes that viewers need to take in their films at least a few times to catch a few throwaway lines of dialogue. Comprised with a plethora of in-frame gags that have threaten to get lost in their incredibly rich, detailed, and precise backgrounds, the Pixar works are equally dynamic since--with WALL-E being a notable exception-- they usually boast a rather large ensemble of characters.



Perhaps in terms of scope, their biggest challenge is evidenced in the 1998 feature A Bug’s Life, which-- following the international success of Toy Story-- sent filmmakers John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton looking for as the tagline promises “an epic presentation of miniature proportions.”



Noted in the Blu-ray's Round Table as the “hardest film” that Pixar studio has ever worked on yet the one that is still the most fun, it marked the last time that the entire company was all working together in tandem on the exact same film. And in this regard it was a necessity since-- despite the rather simplistic story about a lovable outsider hero-- the animators made it incredibly hard on themselves by tackling straightaway all of the toughest obstacles to incorporate in their medium. In other words, they did what most animated movies try to avoid at all costs in creating a “cast” of thousands and working with the difficult challenge of translucence, light and shadow by accurately depicting the world of bugs in the sun, in anthills, and more.



At its core, as countless fans, critics, and scholars have noted, the film’s plot blends the same premise utilized in Akira Kurosawa’s epic Seven Samurai (remade in the United States as one of the greatest westerns of its time in The Magnificent Seven) as well as the Martin Short/Steve Martin/Chevy Chase pre-Tropic Thunder style joke about actors getting mistaken for real life heroes in the ‘80s comedy Three Amigos.



However, intriguingly Lasseter cites two rather surprising influences on the Blu-ray. First he acknowledges that a screening of Michael Bay’s The Rock made him realize they needed to shift the focus from a gigantic ensemble to a main character (with Dave Foley’s bug standing in for Rock’s action hero Nicolas Cage). And secondly although perhaps less startling but still an intriguing choice since Pixar broke free from the musical mode of its associated company, the guys list the classic Walt Disney Silly Symphony short Grasshopper and the Ants as one that deeply affected the filmmakers and it's not only included here complete with an introduction by Stanton and Lasseter but can also be seen on Disney’s new Wind in the Willows release.



Yet masterfully and much like the studio did in similar efforts like Finding Nemo, Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc. and others—even by going for something with a massive scope and A Bug’s Life-- the film by far surpasses them all just in its sheer magnitude and overwhelming amount of characters. Moreover, they were able to dwindle it down to precisely the right essence of what makes something a great story. Likewise, they concerned themselves with the goal that audiences of all ages would be with them every step of the way, especially children who found a majority of the humor of the same year’s thematically similar DreamWorks release Antz going way over their heads.



The plot of the film is rather simple. Namely, Kids in the Hall and News Radio’s funnyman Dave Foley voices the well-intentioned but accident prone ant Flik who-- after trying to stand up to the group of bullying and manipulative grasshoppers (led by Kevin Spacey as Hopper)-- finds he’s jeopardized his entire community when Hopper forces them to supply the grasshoppers with double the amount of food they’re usually forced to fork over.



Realizing there’s no way the ants will be able to supply the violent and intimidating grasshoppers and provide themselves with enough to eat, he’s ostracized by the ant colony’s royal council but promises the Queen (Phyllis Diller) and her daughter, the Princess Atta (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and the youngest royal highness Dot (an adolescent Hayden Panettiiere filled with pre-Heroes spunk) that he will return with a group of hired warrior bugs from Insect City.



Determined to find a tough crew to fight Spacey’s gang of grasshoppers-- in a freak coincidence and comical misunderstanding, he mistakes a newly fired troupe of circus bugs for the real thing and enlists them in his crusade for victory. Upon their return to Flik’s home, it doesn’t take too long for the circus bugs (including David Hyde Pierce, Denis Leary and others) to realize that instead of the entertainment gig they thought they’d book, they’d been hired as gladiatorial brawn. And although predictably Flik starts to become the fool of the colony once more, soon they all pull together to try and defeat the villains.

Filled with some great jokes that take advantage of the flawed communication as the circus group promises the ants “when your grasshopper friends get here, we are gonna knock them dead,” and a nice bit with Denis Leary as a ladybug named Francis who--perpetually tired of being mistaken for female because of his species—gets in touch with his maternal side, A Bug’s Life is a whole lot of fun, never overstaying its welcome in a brisk ninety-five minute running time.



Furthermore it simply dazzles with its incredibly detailed animation that's on display during some exciting action sequences that rival that of Michael Bay's Rock but Bug's Life surpass Bay's films’ tendency towards stock characters by excelling in bringing out the humanity, heart, and humor in its numerous supporting players.

Having delivered the film in DVD’s first ever all-digital video transfer for superior quality without “film” elements and even going as far as to ensure the full screen version of their film maintained the highest level of quality by handling it themselves to adjust the characters to ensure everything fit in the different frame size—the first ever CGI animated feature work to have been “presented in a scope ratio of 2:35:1”—that simply thrilled in DVD format, astounds on Blu-ray.



With gorgeous clarity of the highest order-- within moments, you’ll experience greater appreciation for the translucence of the leaves and color differentiation pouring out from every pixel in 1080 HD. And added to this is a spectacular sound mix as an English 5.1 DTS-HD master audio track that brings the multiple speaker theatrical sequence home to the point where you can even tell just watching it without a speaker hook-up as certain lines of dialogue go quieter in favor of the soundtrack making it beg to be appreciated with a first rate sound set-up.

Additionally, the disc that also includes the ever-popular BD-Live Network also gives fans redeemable movie cash to see Pixar’s new film Up along with an extra Disney File Digital Copy of the feature that is accessible on both Apples and PCs.

And although its characters aren’t as instantly or universally recognizable as Woody and Buzz Lightyear from Toy StoryA Bug’s Life’s phenomenal success including the sophisticated and sweet short Geri’s Game which earned the studio an Academy Award and further solidified their exceptional tradition of first-rate short films a la vintage Disney.





Likewise, it not only foreshadowed the studio’s reputation in the years to come but made its alliance with Walt Disney not only a match made in movie heaven but ensured that from then on, children’s entertainment would continue to improve, inspire, entertain, and above all provide unparalleled joy as Pixar and its many competitors all strove to raise the bar a little more with every film.

Thus in the end, while we can’t all be quite as happy at work as the folks seem to be at Pixar—it’s thanks to Pixar and other studios that help promise its audience that they’ll always be there the same way Disney was and still is to pick us up whenever we may need it whether its through the toys in Andy’s room or the country bugs that live just outside Insect City.