Our review of A Bug's Life (Blu-Ray), published May 19th, 2009, is also available.
An epic of miniature proportions.
Legendary Japanese director Kurosawa probably never dreamed that his film The Seven Samurai would be remade about a thousand times, but this classic story line has been rehashed more times than can probably be counted. The basic theme is that a small group of defenseless villagers are being harassed by bandits of some sort or another. So they send out emissaries to find warriors willing to help them fend off the bad guys. The warriors are always fundamentally good guys down on their luck, so they are willing to take a chance. In the process of helping the villagers, everyone becomes reinvigorated and learns to exceed his or her own believed capabilities. By the way, an excellent restoration of The Seven Samurai is available on DVD from Criterion, if you are interested in seeing the original. Its not a light view, but well worth it for serious film lovers.
Disney's A Bug's Life is a relatively straight retelling of The Seven Samurai, except of course that the characters are bugs. The hapless villagers in this case are part of ant colony which is forced every year to collect food for a roving band of grasshoppers, led by the bad guy and evil mastermind, Hopper. This ritual has simply become part of the colony's way of life and is not even questioned. Its the price they pay for peace.
This year though, a disaster is caused by Flik, a well meaning worker ant who has a habit of starting grandiose projects that end in disaster. Flik's new grain harvester invention misfires and whacks the suppors that hold up the "offering stone," dropping all the collected food into the creek. The grasshoppers arrive to find the stone empty and, as you could imagine, are a little ticked about that. Hopper tells them they have one more chance, and they have to double the amount of food. But this will leave no food for the colony and they will starve.
Partly to get rid of Flik while they attempt to collect the needed food again, they send him away to find "warrior bugs" to help the colony. No one expects his plan to work, but just getting rid of him for a while is seen as a plus. So Flik goes to the "city" to find some bad bugs. He finds them, but isn't aware that they are really just a bunch of unemployed circus bugs. And they, in their attempts to escape some unhappy ex-patrons, fail to understand that he is looking for warriors, not entertainers.
The rest of the story follows the prototype pretty much. The colony is mobilized and inspired to rid themselves of the marauding grasshoppers forever. However, it is eventually discovered that the warrior bugs are really just circus clowns and the colony looses faith in the plan. But of course, in the end, Flik and crew save the day and free the colony from oppression, and Flik gets the girl as well. And she's royalty—Princess Atta—future queen of the colony.
What really makes this DVD special is that its a completely digital product, from creation to DVD. It was taken straight from the rendered digital data to the DVD format without any intervening analog steps. The original, non-anamorphic, release showed the promise of this completely digital delivery mechanism; but, even a completely digital lifecycle can't make a non-anamorphic DVD look superb on the wide screen. With this new special (and anamorphic) edition, the image is absolutely spectacular. I've watched the previous version a number of times so far and, even with the digital enhancement of my Faroudja DVP-2200, the image quality was no match for this new disc. I can see details that just weren't there before, and its just mondo-super crisp, with extra tomato sauce and pleasure dots. The obvious point of comparison is the Antz DVD, which is anamorphic and also completely digital. I'd say that this disc looks noticeably better, though this might be due somewhat to the fact that Antz is a much visually darker movie with less chance for visual primping.
The 5.1 audio seems to be basically the same as that of the previous release, which is to say that its an excellent sound track that really shows off a good surround system. There are lots of fly bys (sometimes literally flies) that pan across the viewing area, a good bit of action, and a great music sound track. The voices are performed by a number of well known actors, including Keven Spacey as Hopper, Dave Foley as Flik, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Princess Atta.
The other reason that this disc is considered special (and costs so much) is that its really two separate discs, one of which is totally given over to "behind the scenes" and "making of" content. It wasn't quite as extensive as I'd hoped, but its all pretty interesting. In particular there is a nice section that shows what was done to get the film into a 4:3 format for video. I would recommend this to anyone who believes that a wide screen presentation is not that important. It clearly shows the diminished impact of all the scenes presented. It also shows that, unlike real film, they can actually move characters in the scene to meet the compromised standards of the 4:3 format in some cases.
The material on the second disc is presented in a pretty complex set of overly nested menus. Menus this complex show up the shortcomings of the DVD menuing mechanisms. They just aren't up to the level of flexibility that would be required to provide easy surfing of this kind of data, though some creativity might have made it somewhat better. Hopefully, when the much awaited HD DVD specification is completed, it will include more powerful presentation mechanisms. To aid in navigation there is a menu tree diagram in the booklet.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I almost hate to speak kindly of Disney. They have been, to this point, such a greedy and manipulative company that I cringe to actually put money in their pockets. I think that they could stand being brought down a notch or two, but they do have some good content. As long as they put the good stuff out in anamorphic format, I guess I'm willing to hold out the financial carrot if someone else would apply the electric shocks to their buttocks.
But, in terms of flaws in the material, there aren't really any to speak off. The film is funny and entertaining for both adults and children, and the visuals are just gorgeous. The extras could have been more extensive, but there are quite a few. You will definitely want to buy this one on the web in order to avoid liquidity issues, because it might be as much as the mid $40 range in the local stores.
Though they charge way too much for nearly every disc they street, Disney has put out a great product this time. It easily meets the overused "reference quality" standard for DVD, and makes a super system showoff disc. If you don't have a 16:9 set, and don't care about the extras, just keep your original version because you won't get the benefits of this disc. But if you have a large, wide screen, this one puts up the prettiest animated pixels I've seen yet. And it can keep the kids well amused for a couple hours to boot.
Acquitted on a technicality, but the court will be watching the defendant closely for signs of regression.
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