Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: A Bug's Life (1998)
Studio Line: Disney - An epic of miniature proportions.

Journey inside the miniature world of bugs for bigger-than-life fun and adventure under every leaf! Crawling with imaginative characters, hilarous laughs and colorful, lifelike computer animation, Disney and Pixar's A Bug's Life will delight everyone - young and old alike!

Director: John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton
Cast: Dave Foley-Flik, Kevin Spacey-Hopper, Julia Louis-Dreyfus-Princess Atta, Hayden Panettiere-Dot, Phyllis Diller-Queen, Richard Kind-Molt, David Hyde Pierce-Slim, Joe Ranft-Heimlich, Denis Leary-Francis, Johnathan Harris-Manny, Madeline Kahn-Gypsy, Bonnie Hunt-Rosie, Michael McShane-Tuck/Roll, John Ratzenberger-P.T. Flea.
Academy Awards: Nominated for Best Comedy Score-Randy Newman, 1999.
DVD: Widescreen 2.35:1, standard 1.33:1; audio English DD 5.1; subtitles none; closed-captioned; double side - single layer; 22 chapters; rated G; 95 min.; $34.99; street date 4/20/99.
Supplements: Geri's Game; Bloopers
Purchase: DVD | The Art and Making of an Epic Miniature Proportions - Jeff Kurti | Score soundtrack - Randy Newman

Picture/Sound/Extras: A+/A/C-

We live in such a cruel, harsh competitive world. Our society always has to divide issues into "either/or." Whenever two movies come out that have similar themes, discussions never deal with what people thought of one or the other; it's always "which one's better" and the arguments that ensue. Bicker bicker bicker - why can't we all just get along?!

Such was the case in the fall of 1998 when we saw two computer animated films that told the stories of misfit ants: Dreamworks' Antz hit first in early October, and Disney's A Bug's Life followed about eight weeks later at Thanksgiving. Few people seem willing to simply discuss the various merits of each film on its own; battle lines must be drawn - each viewer has to pick which one he or she prefers.

I've seen both movies, and I now own both of them on DVD. As such, I'm in a position to take a stand, to buck societal pressure and simply discuss A Bug's Life as though Antz didn't even exist. That'd sure prove that I'm an individual who doesn't need to follow trends and the so-called "usual" way of doing things!

But it wouldn't be as much fun. As such, I'm going to jump right in and pick sides: in the battle of the bugs, A Bug's Life wins, and it wins hands-down - no competition here at all.

Now, that's not to say that Antz isn't a pretty good movie. Initially I found it disappointing, but it's grown on me to a certain degree. At this point I think it's a very entertaining and satisfying little film. (Please refer to my earlier review of the Antz DVD for additional thoughts.)

However, A Bug's Life (hereafter referred to as ABL) surpasses Antz in virtually every way. Antz was a very iffy DVD buy for me; I ended up purchasing it mainly because it offered a decent array of supplemental materials and I got it for very little money ($4 from Reel after use of a coupon). ABL, on the other hand, I would have gone for no matter what; this is one of those titles I would have dropped $100 on to get a special edition laserdisc (if one had existed).

Actually, I was kind of surprised that I liked it as much as I did as quickly as I did. I'm a firm believer in the power of expectations; usually, the better you think a film will be, the less you enjoy it, and vice versa. My friends know better than to even bother to ask me what I thought of any long-anticipated movies until I've had the chance to see them again because my initial impressions rarely end up resembling my ultimate thoughts. (God knows how long it'll take me to come to a conclusion about The Phantom Menace!)

Anyway, I'd really been looking forward to ABL so I was fairly surprised how much I enjoyed it that first time out which came on opening night. I found it to be a thoroughly entertaining experience; it was one of those movies that takes you on such a fun ride that it reminds you why you love movies so much.

I also quickly learned that ABL held up very well to repeated viewings. I saw it again about two weeks later and still thought it was terrific. I ended up watching it yet again a week later because some theaters were running it as a double feature with a preview showing of Mighty Joe Young. Neither my fiancée nor I were all that eager to see ABL again so soon, but we're both fiercely cheap people so this apparent bargain was too much for us to miss: two movies we don't really want to see? So what - it's a good deal!

So we went to this double feature and guess what? We both still really enjoyed ABL. In fact, our third viewing of ABL in less than a month remained more entertaining than our first time through clunky Mighty Joe Young.

As such, if I'd ever had any doubts about my future enjoyment of ABL, they were definitely dispelled that night. I think ABL is as entertaining and imaginative a film as almost any from the Disney archives.

One of the main distinctions those who preferred Antz to ABL made was that they felt the former was more "sophisticated" and "adult" than the latter. That's a load of crap. The supposed "mature nature" of Antz generally was supported by its smattering of mild profanity, a gory (for a cartoon) battle scene, and its casting; Woody Allen and Sharon Stone versus Dave Foley and Julia Louis-Dreyfus? Oh, clearly Antz is for the adults but ABL is just wacky fun for the kiddies!

Antz is clearly the "darker" film, but that doesn't make it more sophisticated. Antz is a movie I watch and I think that something's amusing or clever, but it rarely made me laugh. During ABL, I not only saw much more clever and amusing material, but I actually laughed too! That's a fairly important distinction.

I also really felt that ABL packed a lot more into its 95 minutes. It's one of those movies that should offer something new on every viewing because so many small touches are stuck in the mix. I'm sure it's a film that would benefit from some still-frame viewing to see all the visual details.

Speaking of visuals, Antz looked good but ABL looks great. Computer animation came along way in the three years between it and Toy Story, and that fact shows up on the screen. Put simply, the movie's art frequently appears breathtakingly real. While the insect characters are treated in stylized "cartoon" ways, the rest of the environment is supposed to look genuine, and it clearly does; scenes of dandelions and birds establish that.

I also felt that ABL provided better animated and more unique characters. Antz suffered from a limited palette; nearly all of its characters were ants - we also briefly see some flies and some wasps - and they all looked an awful lot alike. While it's true that the ants in ABL also resemble each other to a strong degree, the film gets spiced up by the fact that not all - or even half - of the main characters are ants. We also have grasshoppers, spiders, a flea, pill bugs, a walking stick, a ladybug, a caterpillar, a moth, a praying mantis, and various others. This added variety clearly helps make ABL a much more visually stimulating experience.

Overall, I just felt that ABL seemed to be a more inventive and exciting experience that did Antz. As far as voice acting goes, I'd call it largely a draw. Many critics harped on Dave Foley's performance as Flik because he doesn't come across with as distinctive a personality as does Woody Allen. I find such comments to be rather unfair since Foley hasn't had nearly 40 years to become embedded in the societal consciousness to the degree of Allen. You hear Allen's voice and that's a shorthand for the character; we already know lots about the personality right off the bat. Foley had to work from scratch, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, since it's nice to hear someone who isn't just playing themselves.

Some critics also felt Louis-Dreyfus didn't display the strength and vivacity clear from her many years on Seinfeld. That's probably true, but she didn't have much to work with in the character of Princess Atta. Atta's basically a reactionary character; she served to expedite various bits of business but she didn't have a lot to do. Nonetheless, I thought she worked out well.

As in most Disney movies, much of the charm and entertainment comes from the supporting characters. Disney usually likes its leads to be fairly bland - the better for viewers to see themselves in their situations - but tends to create much of the humor or drama from the supporting cast. ABL is no different, and the secondary bugs are mainly very entertaining. Easily best of the bunch are Hungarian (?) pill bugs Tuck and Roll (both voiced by Michael McShane) who steal the show with their nonsensical bickering. I also loved John Ratzenberger's P.T. Flea if for no other reason that the little "plink" sound effect used whenever he hops around.

The list goes on. He may not reach the heights of classic Disney heavies like Lucille Laverne's queen in Snow White or Eleanor Audley's Lady Tremaine in Cinderella, but Kevin Spacey's more than adequate as villain Hopper; he plays both the dramatic and the comedic aspects of the role with his usual deft touch. Denis Leary spoofs his usual act as ladybug Francis and David Hyde Pierce provides a nice turn as walking stick Slim. I could keep going, but my hands are getting tired.

So I had established months ago that I truly enjoyed ABL and that it seemed on a par with many other Disney classics. Now all I needed to do was to wait for the film's home video release.

That event came much quicker than I'd anticipated. I've been buying laserdiscs for almost eight years now, and Disney's home video release pattern is usually very predictable. VHS comes out roughly eight to ten months after the beginning of the theatrical run, and a laserdisc version appears about six months after that. Look at Hercules, the last Disney film (so far) to get a laserdisc release: June 1997 theatrical, March 1998 VHS, October 1998 laserdisc.

As such, I didn't expect to see any sort of appearance by ABL on home video until summer 1999, much less a version that was anything other than VHS. I had doubts that we'd see any kind of DVD release, since Disney has not exactly embraced the format; no Disney animated theatrical features had appeared on Region 1 DVD prior to ABL.

So imagine my surprise and pleasure when I heard that the VHS version of ABL would hit in April 1999 and that the DVD would be - gasp! - day and date! I didn't believe it for a while, but here it is in my grubby little hands, so I guess it's true!

The DVD:

Much has been made of this DVD for two reasons: for one, it was supposed to be the first DVD with a transfer straight from the computer to the screen. Okay, that's a simplification of the process, but essentially the transfer skipped the normal film to video part by coming to DVD as digital data.

The other interesting facet of the ABL came from its full screen version. Like many DVDs, it was to provide both a widescreen (ABL projected theatrically with a 2.35:1 ratio) and pan and scan, but the folks at Pixar said that the latter version would be different. They reported that they would recompose the image so that characters would not be lost from the sides. Check out archives of various DVD sites for more facts about this, but it essentially meant that the recomposed image should not lose as much information as one would expect from a widescreen film such as ABL.

So how did these various aspects of the production work out? Well, in the case of the digital transfer, spectacularly. ABL clearly offers one of the sharpest and best defined DVD images I've yet seen. It's really quite spectacular the depth and life shown on the TV screen, ad the colors seem flawless. As great as the Antz DVD looked, this one's a tiny bit better.

The recomposed full screen transfer remains somewhat more problematic. I watched both versions separately and then compared them more directly by flipping from the DVD to a chapter I had taped for this purpose. Basically, the full screen version sometimes: a) offers the same image as the letterboxed one, except with more information on the top and bottom; b) acts like a regular pan and scan image by zooming in on the main action to the exclusion of the remainder of the original frame; and c) recomposes the image so that information that would have been lost through an ordinary pan and scan transfer gets pushed into the frame. I'd guess that these three methods are pretty much evenly split throughout the movie.

So which version is better? Well, I'm usually a die-hard "original aspect ratio" kind of guy, but I'm kind of torn in this case. I think the widescreen version plays better because while it clearly works better than the vast majority of pan and scan transfers, the fullscreen film still frequently looks cramped. We probably aren't losing much information from the sides of the screen, but the impression that we're viewing less than the complete picture remains.

Still, the fullscreen version offers the superior picture. While the widescreen transfer looks great, the fullscreen edition looks super great! I thought the former appeared tremendously solid but my jaw didn't drop until I viewed the fullscreen transfer.

This begs the question: next time I watch ABL, which version will I watch? Who knows? Probably the widescreen one, because it offers a more satisfying composition, but the visual splendor of the fullscreen edition remains quite tempting. Maybe I'll watch the first half one way and the second half the other.

No matter which visual version you watch, you'll be treated to the same terrific Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix. No complaints here in any regard: both dialogue and music sound clear and natural, and the rear channels are used quite aggressively to create a fine surround environment. It isn't the best I've heard, but it's nonetheless pretty great!

I encountered a quandary when I needed to rate the supplementary materials on the ABL DVD. It appears that it offers three: two reels of the wonderful "bloopers" presented at the end of the film, and a mildly entertaining Pixar short called Geri's Game (which I was quite disappointed to discover wasn't an exposé about the ex-Ginger Spice!).

However, technically these aren't really "extras" since all of them appeared during the film's theatrical run. Any time you saw ABL in the theater, you'd also see all of these except one of the two "blooper" reels. (The film initially ran with reel "A"; reel "B" appeared about three weeks into the film's run as a minor enticement to encourage repeat viewings.)

Anyway, in the end I compromised and gave the film a "C-" for extras. I guess it could have appeared without Geri's Game and one version of the bloopers, so it deserves some credit. I sorely miss the lack of an audio commentary, however. In fact, ABL should have earned the treatment the fantastic Toy Story laserdisc boxed set offered. (Maybe it still will - no ABL LD has been announced - but it seems unlikely; Disney hasn't offered a new boxed set for a feature since 1996's Hunchback of Notre Dame.)

Ultimately, although it lacks some of the extras that would have made it an all-time great DVD, the wonderfully entertaining film and the exceptional sound and image presentation will just have to do. ABL lists for a fairly high $34.95, but internet retailers offer it for much less. Do yourself a big favor and pick up a copy of it as soon as possible; it's a real winner!

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