Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: A Bug's Life (1998): Collector's Edition
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: 2-Disc set; widescreen 2.35:1/16x9, standard 1.33:1; audio English DD 5.1; subtitles none; closed-captioned; single side - single layer; 36 chapters; rated G; 202 min.; $49.98; street date 11/23/99.
Supplements: Disc One: The Movie
World's first DVD created directly from the digital source; Two viewing options - widescreen and full-frame; Audio commentary featuring director John Lasseter, co-director and co-writer Andrew Stanton, and supervising film editor Lee Unkrich; Isolated music track - 2.0 stereo; Isolated sound effects track - Dolby Digital 5.1
Disc Two: Supplemental Material
Behind-the-scenes look at the creation of A Bug's Life; Introductions and explanation by the filmmakers; Early presentation reel ("Fleabie"); Original story treatment and pitch boards; Character designs, concept art and color script; Abandoned sequences; Storyboard-to-final-film split-screen comparison; Behind-the-scenes look at voice talent; Early production tests; Production progression demonstration; Sound designer Gary Rydstrom on the film's sound effects; Trailers and posters (domestic and international); Behind-the-scenes look at how the film was recomposed from its original widescreen presentation to a full-frame presentation for home video release; Both sets of hilarious outtakes, and a behind-the-scenes look at their production; Academy Award winning short, Geri's Game
Purchase: DVD | The Art and Making of an Epic Miniature Proportions - Jeff Kurti | Score soundtrack - Randy Newman

Picture/Sound/Extras: A+/A/A+

I suppose it doesn't qualify as a case of the old bait and switch - my favorite phrase, by the way - but Disney's been up to no good with their pattern of DVD releases. Too frequently have they released an essentially "movie-only" edition of a film and then announced a sweet special edition soon after the no-frills DVD hits the shelves. Armageddon, A Bug's Life, Shakespeare In Love, Rushmore - all have gone through this treatment, and it's cheesed off quite a few people.

Happily, it looks like the Mouse is cleaning up his act; both standard and special editions of Tarzan were announced simultaneously. Though the latter doesn't hit the shelves for more than two months after the basic version becomes available, it still qualifies as progress; at least I and others won't buy DVDs we end up having to ditch a few months later. Hopefully, A Bug's Life will be the final title Disney title for which I have to make this trade.

Well, if I gotta go through that hassle, at least Disney made it worth my while. For one, I absolutely loved ABL. Admittedly, I'm quite partial to Disney films anyway, but I thought ABL was simply terrific and was a step above their usual fare. That may be partially because it's not a Disney movie, really; Pixar created it, and Pixar have yet to issue a less-than-wonderful film (Toy Story 2 makes them three for three).

For now, I'll leave you with the indication that I really like A Bug's Life and I won't offer my usual 80,000 word essay about it. I already wrote such a review for the film when the first DVD came out in April; if you'd like to peruse my thoughts, please click here. The remainder of this review will be dedicated to discussing the quality of the Collector's Edition and making comparisons between it and the original release.

The DVD:

Disney have presented A Bug's Life both in a fullscreen transfer and in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1; unlike the first DVD, the image here is enhanced for 16X9 televisions. (Score one for the anamorphic crowd!) As with the original edition of the film, the fullscreen version of ABL is different from the usual pan and scan transfer. Pixar made a big deal of the fact they would recompose many of the film's scenes so that they better fit the confines of a 4X3 TV and 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.

How does this "recomposed image" work in real life? Somewhat problematically. When I initially reviewed this DVD in April, 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. (Although the image of the new letterboxed DVD is different from the original, fullscreen vs. widescreen comparison remain the same, so I didn't repeat them.)

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.

As such, although the filmmakers and publicists have touter the fullscreen version as a "no compromises" presentation, that's not really true. Even when the image doesn't lose information - such as scenes that add to the top and bottom - I prefer the widescreen version simply because it presents the original composition. Look at it this way: the filmmakers framed those shots that way for a reason, and the additional data alters that decision. Granted, the filmmakers also approved the reframed version, but I prefer to stick with the original presentation whenever possible.

I must admit that unlike most fullscreen editions of 2.35:1 films, this one creates more of a quandary for me simply because of the quality of the presentation. Both versions looks great, but the fullscreen shots look even better. It's not a huge difference - and is one that will effectively be rendered moot when 16X9 TVs become more prevalent - but the difference remains, and it's one that tempts me to watch the reframed version.

Even if that super-sharp edition didn't exist and we only received the widescreen shots, I'd still give the image of A Bug's Life an "A+" because it's the best-looking DVD I've ever seen. As touted on the case, this DVD offers the first digital to digital movie transfer; that means that rather than master the video from a film print - which is usually what's done, even when the material is all digital as it is here - they made the video straight from the original computerized data. As such, no danger of any degradation in image of print flaws existed.

The results are stunning. Clarity is absolutely flawless, with frighteningly sharp images no matter what the size of the onscreen participants, and obviously no print flaws or grain appear. The picture seems completely devoid of digital artifacts, and although I'd worried about downconversion issues - my Panasonic A120 doesn't always handle them terribly well - I noted no additional shimmering or "jaggies" due to the 16X9 enhancement; indeed, I never noticed any moire effects at all.

ABL offers a tremendously varied palette, and those hues show up brilliantly on the DVD. To call the colors "eye popping" is almost an understatement; they leap off the screen with boldness and yet remain natural. Shadow detail and black levels also seem perfect.

So if I think the widescreen version's perfect, why do I think the fullscreen edition looks even better? I suppose technically the image isn't really better, but the increase in size offers that appearance; it seems more detailed because everything's larger and easier to see. Despite that slight edge, I'll stick with the widescreen version in the future, simply because the quality's almost as good, but the framing is much nicer.

One new feature of this DVD is that it makes changing your mind about which version to watch easier to resolve. On the original DVD, you had to actually stop the disc, eject it and restart it to be allowed to switch framings; this is easy enough to do, since most DVD players have an "eject" button on the remote so you can open and close the player without having to physically be next to it, but it was fairly time-consuming and laborious.

On the new DVD, however, the widescreen and fullscreen versions are both accessible from the main menu, so all you need to do is go to it at any time and choose. You'll have to manually select the section of the disc you want to watch - anytime you change framing, it automatically reverts to the start of the film. Still, it's nice to be able to flip between the two editions fairly easily - it sure made comparisons much easier for me!

Both fullscreen and widescreen version of A Bug's Life offer the exact same Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, and it's a terrific mix. One nice thing about animated films is that all of the audio has to be created from scratch since there's no "on set" sound, so that allows for a tremendous attention to detail. That facet is obvious here on this mix, a track that sounds consistently vivid, lively and neatly organized.

The quality of all the sound is fantastic. Dialogue, effects and music - another winning score from Randy Newman - all seem properly balanced and natural with clean highs and deep lows. The mix presents an excellent soundstage as well. The front three channels are especially active, with solid spatial orientation and smooth panning between speakers. The rear speakers get a nice workout, especially in many of the scenes in which bugs fly; they zip around from front to rear and right to left effectively and convincingly. The audio mix of ABL lacked a certain "dazzle" factor that would have elevated it to an "A+" rating, but it came pretty close; it's a wonderfully full and immersive sonic experience.

Too bad that the audio didn't quite make "A+" territory, because then ABL would have earned the first "A+" trifecta of any DVD I've reviewed. As it stands, it'll have to be happy with the first "A+" rating I've ever awarded for a supplemental section. I've reviewed something like 150 DVDs to date, and I've been tempted to hand out an "A+" for extras here or there, but I haven't done so because I had yet to find a DVD that compared to the best laserdisc special editions. While there are some fantastic DVDs out there, none of them live up to LD sets like Terminator 2, The Lion King, or Toy Story, so I figured that was the standard which had to be equaled to merit the elusive "A+."

Quite honestly, the ABL Collector's Edition doesn't quite equal those LD efforts, but it's close enough to make the "A+" cut. Disney have really packed this sucker full of supplemental goodies - it's a terrific little package.

Most of the extras appear on disc 2, but some show up on the first platter. The key one there is an audio commentary from director John Lasseter, codirector/cowriter Andrew Stanton, and supervising film editor Lee Unkrich. Lasseter dominates this track, though not absurdly so. Overall, it's pretty good as it offers a fair amount of information about the processes used to bring the film to life. However, it could have used more about why they chose the particular actors and why they decided to address this subject - there's little about the project's genesis. Some reference to Antz also would have been interesting; yes, it would have surprised me had they mentioned it, but since the directors of that film briefly discussed ABL during their commentary, it wouldn't be shocking.

I also felt that the participants tended to be a little too self-congratulatory. Lasseter spends far too much time talking about how great various components of the movie were; I agree that the piece is terrific, but when I listen to filmmaker commentaries, I want to hear about how it was done and am not generally interested in their opinions. (Though when they knock their work, it's provocative, but that's because you don't expect that level of honesty.) This consistent praise doesn't come off as bragging - Lasseter and the others don't directly laud themselves - but it does get tiresome. Still, the track provides a lot of good information, and it's a lively discussion that added to my understanding of how the film was made, so it's definitely worth a listen.

Also included on DVD 1 are some isolated soundtracks. Randy Newman's score is presented in stereo and an isolated effects track is offered with 5.1 sound. For the record, you can't watch each of these with either the fullscreen or widescreen images; the score accompanies the widescreen version - as does the commentary - and the effects go with the fullscreen rendition. This appears to be because each edition resides on its own layer, so to have duplicates of the commentary and the isolated music and effects tracks would have occupied too much space.

Anyway, these two isolated sections are quite nice to have. I'm not a big fan of musical scores but I appreciate that Newman's work is presented on its own. The effects track is quite entertaining; it's very interesting to hear those sounds without any other accompaniment and it gave me a greater appreciation of all the work that sound designers have to do (plus I loved hearing PT's cool "plink" noise on its own). One wish: in the future, it'd be cool for DVDs to go all the way and also include an isolated dialogue track. Hey, they're doing the other two - why not complete the set?

Now on to the real meat of this package: DVD 2. This disc presents a fairly complete detailing of how ABL was made. It's organized into four main areas: Preproduction, Production, Sound Design, and Release. End Credit Outtakes and Geri's Game also form their own headings. I'll discuss all of the contents under each grouping.

"Preproduction" is the most extensive section and it covers all of the work that occurred prior to formal "filming." Of course, on an animated film, the two areas are less well-defined than on a traditional movie - since no actually shooting on sets takes place - but this area essentially covers the issues that needed to be resolved before any kind of theoretical filming could have occurred.

One note: most of the different areas include introductory video comments from various filmmakers. Usually these include Lasseter and Stanton; sometimes they're joined by others and sometimes they aren't involved at all. These introductions do a nice job of informing the viewer what they're about to see and help define portions of the production process. I could have lived without the odd self-consciously shaky camerawork, but I liked these intros quite a lot; they convey necessary information in a fun way that usually would be covered by stiff text pages. I don't want to have to comment every time an introduction appears, so suffice it to say there are a lot of them here; not every subsection has one, but most do, and they all work the same way, although the subjects and participants vary.

The first section of the Pre-production subheading covers "story/editorial" areas, and it starts with "Fleabie. This is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek three minute video shot by the folks at Pixar to show the Disney bigwigs the progress they were making on the film (then called "Bugs"). It's "hosted" by a puppet named Fleabie who tours the Pixar studios and observes difference aspects of the production. It's not tremendously amusing, but it's cute and fun nonetheless and serves as a cool historical token.

The pre-production segment continues with the film's "original treatment." This piece combines a text storyline with color drawings to convey the film's original plot and characters. It's very interesting to see how the movie changed and how it stayed the same; much of it is similar, though some characters are altered or nonexistent and the structure is different.

Next comes the "storyboard pitch." This section helps demonstrate to viewers what storyboards are, and it shows how they generally are used at Pixar by letting us observe the creative process. One of Joe Ranft's circus scenes is discussed and altered as we watch from a literal "fly on the wall" position. Cool!

One scene from the completed picture is offered for a storyboard to film comparison; we see "Dot's Rescue." Normally I don't much care for these, but for some reason I found this one compelling; it was interesting to see what stayed the same and what changed. (Not much, in the latter case, but it's still fun.)

Two "abandoned sequences" are presented. These aren't the same as deleted scenes; as the filmmakers explain, virtually everything created for animated films gets used because it's so expensive to make. As such, story reels are utilized to create a crude facsimile of the way the final scenes would appear; it lets the filmmakers get a good idea how a segment would work without costing too much. Story reels film somewhat kinetic versions of the storyboards and accompany them with dialogue and effects.

The first unused sequence is called "original museum opening" and shows a prologue that was considered for the film. The other is a scene in "PT's Office" that was replaced with his simple "You're fired" line in the final film; originally there was a whole segment in which he went over the issue with the circus bugs. The absence of the museum scene is no loss, but the office segment might have worked; it has some funny stuff in it. Still, PT's proclamation as he simmers in the final film works awfully well, too, so I won't second guess them.

The next subsection of the Pre-production area covers "research" for the film. It only includes one piece, but it's a good one. The filmmakers used a tiny "bug cam" to film the world from what seemed to be an insect's perspective; this segment shows us some of the results and includes narration. I really liked this part; it's amazing to see how strongly the video influenced the production decisions, and it helped me appreciate what a fantastic job they did with the animation. It''s a very fun section.

The final subsection of the Pre-production header covers "design," and it's a doozy. This area consists almost entirely of still frames, and there are about 570 screens worth of information! (Yes, I said "570" - that's not a typo.) My thumb hurts from all the advancing!

The main design section covers the characters themselves. Subheadings address "the ant colony," "grasshopper gang," "circus," and "miscellaneous." The number of drawings per character ranges from a lot of six (for both Molt and the Ant Council) to a high of 42 (for both Hopper and Flik). All in all, the character drawings take up about 350 of the frames. There's also a "model turnaround" for Hopper; this presents a computer maquette of the character, and the camera revolves around it to show it from all angles.

The individual sketches cover a wide gamut of types. Some are early designs, whereas many show various moods and expressions of the characters. We also see the technical drawings made of the characters that are used to ensure consistency between animators. Most of the individual character sections end by showing that bug's maquette. This section is very interesting and entertaining and lets us see how the designs develop.

"Locations" is the next area in this section, and it examines "Ant Island," "the City," "Circus Tent/Wagon," and "Hopper's Hangout." The Ant Island section dominates this piece, with 95 of its 140 drawings coming from that area (which makes sense, since it's the main "location"). I didn't find these drawings to be as interesting as those of the characters, but they're quite compelling nonetheless.

Finally, the design section concludes with some "concept art" and some "color scripts." The former area offers 36 drawings that were used to conceptualize various aspects of the film, whereas the latter covers 54 screens and is a little more difficult to explain. Essentially, color scripts seem to be very small pieces of art that show the director of photography the ways colors should look in various scenes. Each of the 54 screens contains about four or five of these strips.

Next up is the Production area, which covers the actual creation of the film. One disappointment here is the Behind the Scenes of A Bug's Life featurette. Every Disney LD box set included a Making of... documentary, all of which lasted about half an hour. That's what I expected here; instead, we get a 3 minute puff piece. Admittedly, it does cover all the main aspects of production, but it does so incredibly tersely. It's worth a look but not great.

Another featurette addresses "voice casting." This four-minute video is also fairly brief and glib, though it's more interesting simply because it sticks to one area of production. We see some interview snippets with the voice actors and a few shots from the recording sessions. As with the previous featurette, it's fun and entertaining but too short.

Next up is a section called "early tests." This five and a half minute video shows some animation tests done early in production. These were used to make sure the film was on the right track and helped the filmmakers determine how they wanted to do things. Interesting and neat stuff.

The "progression demonstration" shows us the steps computer animation goes through to reach the final product. It covers four stages, from first to last: 1) A story reel, which offers a rough approximation of how the finished product should look and move; 2) Layout, which creates very crude and awkward computer animation to "block" the scene and get it started; 3) Animation, when the characters are fully animated and the scene is done except for the finishing touches, which occur in 4) Shaders and lighting, the portion where all the "fine points" are added to create a realistic and full image. The "flaming death" scene is used to demonstrate these stages, and you can easily flip from stage to stage by using the "angle" button on your remote. Cool!

That completes Production. Next we move to Sound Design, which includes just one piece: a demonstration from sound designer Gary Rydstrom of how the movement noises for each of the characters were created. This video runs for a little over 13 minutes. We don't see Rydstrom, but we hear the original recordings accompanied by a black screen which is followed by the final mix that includes those sounds. It's quite delightful and fascinating to discover how the different noises were assembled (and I get to hear more of PT's distinctive "plinking!")

The next section, Release, covers publicity issues in regard to the film. We see 16 still frame screens of posters and ad campaigns from the US and elsewhere, plus we observe two theatrical trailers. The second one is probably the best known: it starts with the Who's "Baba O'Riley" and shows a compendium of scenes from the film. The first trailer is more obscure and also more interesting: it's a very long shot of the main bugs - shown in normal bug size, from a human point of view - and not much happens until ... well, I'll let you see it. I don't think I ever saw this one in the theaters, and it's very entertaining; I love to see trailers that don't just collect shots from the film.

The Release area provides one other fun piece: "character interviews." This 90 second video was to be used for international promotion and it shows us a remote "interview" between a broadcaster and four "actors" (Flik, Hopper, Heimlich and Francis). It's a lot of fun and is quite clever. One curious note: while Dave Foley and Joe Ranft clearly reprise their roles as Flik and Heimlich, I'm not so sure that Kevin Spacey and Denis Leary do the voices of Hopper and Francis for this piece. Hopper sounds pretty accurate, though a few spots make me wonder, but Francis does not sound like Leary to me. I won't declare that it definitely isn't him - I don't want to be embarrassed if it is - but I don't think it is...

Almost done! Next is the Outtakes section. This presents both reels of the hilarious "outtakes" from the end of the film - because of their popularity, a second version of these scenes was attached to the film three weeks after its initial release. I loved these clips no so much because they were inherently funny but because they lampooned the insipid nature of these "bloopers;" why anybody still likes them, I don't know, and I thought these false outtakes made for a wicked commentary on how stupid and inane they are.

One nice thing about this DVD is that we get to see the outtakes fullframe without credits running over them. On the original DVD, we could watch them fullframe but the text intruded, or we could observe them in the widescreen version, but that one really makes them small; the frame of the outtakes only takes up about one-sixth of the TV screen. While the original set of bloopers still accompanies either version of the film, we can see both of them fullframe here without any intrusive text. Great!

We also get a three minute and forty second featurette about the outtakes. This addresses why they did them and offers some shots of the actors. As usual, it's too short, but it's a neat little addition.

Finally, the DVD includes the "Geri's Game" short that preceded the theatrical presentation of the film. "Geri's Game" is shown in its original aspect ratio of about 1.66:1. It's a cute little cartoon, but nothing special in my opinion; unlike ABL itself, I quickly tired of it. Nonetheless, it's a nice addition to the DVD. For the record, the only extras included on the original ABL DVD were both sets of outtakes and "Geri's Game."

That's quite an improvement, and though I'm peeved that I had to buy it twice, I'm pleased with the quality of this production; Disney made the second purchase worth my while. A Bug's Life is a tremendously entertaining film that endures repeated viewings with ease; after six screenings in barely a year, I still find it delightful and amusing. The Collector's Edition DVD may seem a little pricey with an MSRP of $49.95, but a great deal of content is packed into it. It offers excellent sound and a picture and a collection of supplements that are second to none on DVD.

Put simply, A Bug's Life is the standard by which all other DVDs now must be judged. It's extremely highly recommended; the A Bug's Life Collector's Edition DVD is without question the best DVD currently available (and it may keep that title for a while - can't wait to see what they do with Toy Story 2, though!) - get this sucker now!

Menu: DVD Movie Guide | Archive | Top