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"A Bug's Life" Blu-ray: Little Ants, Big Movie

Oddly enough, I never saw A Bug’s Life in theaters back in 1998, opting for DreamWorks’ “ant” movie instead. Eventually, I saw it on home video, and at the time I liked it, but obviously I had no other Pixar film to compare it to other than Toy Story. I didn’t realize that much better films would be coming from this studio later. In that retrospective sense, A Bug’s Life doesn’t compare to, say, The Incredibles, Wall-E, or even Monsters, Inc., but that doesn’t make it bad. Far from it. It’s still a quality Pixar film.

Flik (Dave Foley) is the hero of our story, a rather meek, unpopular ant who screws up when he accidentally destroys the food that the ant colony has gathered for a group of Hell’s Angels-esque grasshoppers, led by the sinister Hopper (Kevin Spacey). Hopper orders them to gather the food again, and they’ll be back in a couple of seasons. The ant colony’s Princess Atta (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss), simply wanting Flik gone, concocts a plan to send him out to look for help in fighting these grasshoppers, with the idea with the idea of getting him out of the way so he can’t screw up. But imagine her surprise when Flik comes back with a circus troupe, whom Flik has mistaken for a group of warriors.

Yes, this film utilizes the “miscommunication plot”, where if the characters would just take the extra minute or two to be on the same page with details (such as Flik saying exactly why he wants the circus troupe to follow him back to the ant colony), the movie would be over in short order. But I think it works here. For one thing, the frantic pace at which Flik rounds them up helps, as he doesn’t really have time to explain the situation, and the troupe is so desperate for work (having just been fired) that they’re willing to take anything without asking questions. It also provides both humor, as when it dawns on the troupe while watching a children’s play, of all things, that they’re here to exterminate and not to entertain; as well as action, as when they have to rescue a little girl ant from a bird, and this contributes to the misconception that they’re brave fighters.

That said, I think one of my problems with the film is the massive number of characters. I’m not even talking about the unnamed masses of the huge ant colony; I’m referring to the circus troupe, which is made of a bunch of archetypes which do fit into the plot (especially the final battle, when they each have unique talents to thwart Hopper), but they aren’t exactly fleshed out characters. Francis is the angry ladybug who gets peeved when anyone thinks he’s a girl; Dim is the rhinoceros beetle who basically only talks in a low voice and flies; Tuck and Roll are the foreigners who comedically bicker with each other in their native tongue; Slim is the walking stick insect who thinks he’s above the circus act, etc. It’s not overwhelmingly hard to keep track of them, but I wish they were given more elaborate personalities.

But there are a few things which elevate the film. First is the score. This is arguably Pixar’s most memorable score. (Sorry, The Incredibles!) Composer Randy Newman created all sorts of musical motifs that are repeated numerous times throughout the film, and they are easy to remember even after you’re done watching. The main theme is especially memorable, owing a lot to an old fashioned Western movie in its sweeping scope. In fact, it was so good that on the 2003 DVD, Pixar included a music only audio track so you could enjoy the whole film with just the score.

Second is Hopper. He’s one of the truly great Pixar villains, and is brilliantly played by Kevin Spacey. Thanks to the direction, his varied ominous facial expressions, and Spacey’s snarly voice work, you can feel the evil whenever he’s on-screen. One of my personal favorite scenes is when Hopper, asked by his subordinates if it’s truly necessary to visit the ant colony (as they aren’t exactly hard-up for food in their plush resort), provides a brutal demonstration that shows he doesn’t care about the food, but rather with keeping the ants in line. He’s a power-hungry tyrant.

Third, there are numerous memorable scenes. From the circus act gone wrong, to the hungry bird chasing Flik and his circus pals (in a tone straight out of Jurassic Park), to Hopper’s creepy first encounter with the bugs (“Do I look stupid to you?!”), to the final battle where rain drops are literally like falling bombs to these miniature creatures, A Bug’s Life has plenty of creativity to keep scenes lasting in your head.

And finally, there’s the animation and artwork. Toy Story, at least in 1995, was no slouch in the presentation department, and was especially impressive as it was the first full-length CG film. However, A Bug’s Life improves upon it in every way. Besides the fact that they had to animate so many ant characters in the background of many shots, the environments (and lighting therein) are just gorgeous. The character animation is also improved, with subtle facial ticks that replicate real life while still being cartoon-like. Strangely, there are a few moments in the film that almost look like stop animation, but that’s a compliment, as the characters blend into their environments well (as if they were hand-modeled on a real set and filmed that way) instead of standing out from the backgrounds.

Speaking of the visuals, let’s talk the Blu-ray disc. Having been wowed by another Pixar film on Blu-ray (Wall-E), I went in expecting nothing but the best from this as well. Thankfully, Pixar doesn’t disappoint. A Bug’s Life is about as good as one can expect from a CG film to look on the new format, and the increased quality allowed me to see tiny details that I hadn’t been able to see before, such as subtle wrinkles on a character’s face, or the textures on leaves. It really makes you appreciate all the work they put into the look of this film.

There are a good number of special features on this new Blu-ray edition. While some are repeat material from the 2003 special edition DVD, there are also new goodies so it makes a double dip easier to swallow. The new stuff comes in the form of a Filmmaker’s Round Table, a 20-minute piece where four of the people who worked on the film have a casual chat about various stories pertaining to A Bug’s Life. My personal favorite story was when they were invited to Camp David to premiere the film to Bill Clinton. I can’t imagine how surreal that must have been.

The other new material is “A Bug’s Life: The First Draft”, an 11-minute storybook-esque telling of an early version of the film, narrated by Dave Foley. It offers the same basic premise (a circus troupe is brought back to the village to thwart the grasshoppers), but otherwise numerous details and plot points are different, such as Flik being red. Personally, I think the final version of the film was better.

Repeats from previous DVDs include “Geri’s Game”, a 1997 Pixar short starring an old man playing chess; two sets of outtakes; some behind-the-scenes looks at every step of the process (note that these are in standard definition); a brief “interview” with four of the main characters; the two trailers for the film; and a 1934 Disney short, “The Grasshopper and the Ant”, which isn’t particularly funny but at least has catchy music. We also get a feature length commentary from John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton, the directors. It’s an informative piece that reveals a lot of tidbits about the production process, and they have plenty of enthusiasm to keep it from getting dull.

While A Bug’s Life isn’t my favorite Pixar film, it’s still enjoyable and shows their tremendous progress over Toy Story in aspects like character animation and story scope/ambition that would only escalate with each new film. The Blu-ray looks fantastic and offers some new material as well. As such, this release comes recommended, especially for those who missed out on the DVD releases.

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