Judge Ryan Keefer thinks that all this silly meaning of life talk is nothing more than a ruse to delve into the thoughts and minds of the albatross.
"Well, that's the end of the film. Now, here's the meaning of life. M-hmm. Well, it's nothing very special. Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations."
The British comedy troupe Monty Python had carved out a legendary niche for themselves with their groundbreaking BBC television shows of the late '60s, which was parlayed into film success in the middle and late '70s. The Meaning of Life was their last collaborative effort in theaters, save for a television special shortly before Graham Chapman's death in 1989. So has it stood up over time and how does in look in high definition?
Facts of the Case
Simply put, Chapman (Yellowbeard), John Cleese (A Fish Called Wanda), Eric Idle (The Rutles), Michael Palin (Time Bandits), Terry Jones (Erik the Viking) and Terry Gilliam (Brazil) put together 85 or 90 minutes worth of sketches, some being a little more focused on a central "meaning of life" theme than others. Among the highlights; a headmaster having sex with his wife in front of his studens, part of education; a large man at a restaurant being the epitome of gluttony, and other sketches that touch upon birth, death, religion, everything that makes life worth living.
Wow, we've got three reviews of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but the Verdict staff has yet to tackle this one, I honestly feel privileged. This is where all the Sunday night PBS viewing of the shows growing up has really paid off! In all sincerity though, the film itself is a forgotten gem in some areas (even among some Pythons), but the film's delicate balance of approaching serious topics makes me fond of it, despite all the farting Frenchman and friends of Brian you could provide.
The common complaint about the film is that it's really more of a sketch film, where the links are fairly deficient and the sketches themselves are inconsistent. It's certainly true that upon repeated viewings, many fans are more fond of the singular concept Python films like Holy Grail and Life of Brian, and this one is almost a feature-length equivalent of an episode from 1970. Or maybe the view is that it's eerily similar to And Now for Something Completely Different, except that everyone knew who the boys were, so there was no need for something like this. However at the end of the day, their parodies of religion, particularly when Chapman and Idle discuss Protestantism versus Catholicism) still prove to be funny a quarter century later, and in these days where some parents are forbidden from attending their children's sporting events because of cheering or booing, to see men in their twenties and thirties eviscerate a bunch of children in rugby is still worth a laugh or two.
Technically speaking, the 1080p VC-1 transfer does generally bring the picture into a new level of depth and detail that the standard def version lacked. There were some pixelation issues early on with the video quality of the standard def discs that was corrected, and as that's since been corrected, there may be some older ones laying out there, so buyer beware. The Dolby Digital-Plus audio doesn't really do much, not that I was expecting it to begin with. But musical numbers sound hollow, dialogue comes out sounding a little weak, and there may be some low end subwoofer activity, but it's pretty scarce.
The extras on this disc are the same are those found on the two-disc edition. Aside from a one minute introduction to the film by Idle, there's a commentary with Gilliam and Jones. I could never quite tell if it was done separately or together (I'm guessing the former), but Gilliam discusses his short film in great discussion before Jones comes in for the feature, which Gilliam contributes to every so often. Gilliam is always a good source for information, and remembering everything about The Crimson Permanent Assurance is one of the reasons why I'll always listen to the commentaries on his films, his memory is encyclopedic. Jones is a little bit more conventional when it comes to remembering things on set, but he also talks about some of the ideas that were cast aside from the film. There's a bit of silence here so it's a bit of a bummer, but it's not too bad a track overall. The "soundtrack" for the lonely is just a guy who says little, if anything, while he watches the film. Yawns, burps and other bodily noises are prevalent through the track. The deleted scenes, or "Skipped Bits," run about twenty minutes and there are seven scenes total, with pertinent Jones commentary. "The Meaning of the Making of The Meaning of Life" is a presumed fifty minute look at the production, but it's more of a chance for the living Pythons to discuss how they work with one another and what their thoughts of the film were and are now. The answer to the age old question "What is the preoccupation with fish?" is given here, and the film's reception at the Cannes Film Festival is also recalled. The piece wraps with everyone's thoughts on life itself, and the piece itself (combined with archival footage of some of the members including Chapman) is a much better piece than I was expecting.
Moving on, the "How to Choose a Really Good School" piece is a new bit of material from the Pythons which is pretty funny, and "Un Film de John Cleese" is a trailer for the film if Cleese ran it, and the world to boot. "Remastering a Masterpiece" is a half serious look at the restoration efforts for the film that Jones and Gilliam do some riffing on, and there's a truckload of promotional material and some alternate versions of songs to boot. The oddly titled "Fish" section includes a piece called "What Fish Think," which is fifteen minutes focused on a fish tank, while the "Virtual Reunion" brings the surviving Pythons together via stilted and awkward computer logistics.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The sticking point of this film, and I know that the design of the Pythons is to throw a loop into things, but the Gilliam film that winds up being a fifteen minute distraction is still just too long. It's got moments where it's pretty funny, but it becomes self-indulgent in how long it is. Gilliam does say it's a live action equivalent of one of his animations, but if any of his animations were fifteen minutes long, I must be losing my mind.
To tackle the two issues, even on standard definition, if you haven't seen The Meaning of Life, you probably should. If you like all things Python, you should have this in your library just on general principle. Plus, it's the most exhaustive version of the film on disc (and may be as good as it gets). From a high def perspective, you're only upgrading for the audio and video, which is exactly what I did. So follow my lead, and drink this new flavor of Kool-Aid.
The court finds that the meaning of life is still pending. As for the meaning of this review, well, go upgrade at your discretion.
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Scales of Justice
• Eric Idle Introduction
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