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Thank god for Cars. Without that one definitive failure I’d still have to refer to A Bug’s Life as my least favourite Pixar film when I make depressingly obsessive compulsive lists. Whew, dodged a bullet on that one. A Bug’s Life is the studio’s second weakest film, but it’s still a good time at the movies, and not the mind numbing throw-away most DreamWorks and Fox animated films are. Looking back on the film after nearly a decade away I continue to find myself stuck in the middle, but unlike the relative flop that was Cars, A Bug’s Life cannot be called boring by anyone outside of the most intellectually jaded people in the world.

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Pixar movies are plenty referential, but Bug’s Life is the only direct adaptation in their collection. It’s a mixed adaptation, but it’s still pretty overtly adapted from elements of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Aesop’s ‘The Ant and the Grasshopper’ fable. It’s one of the more clever adaptations of the two oft-adapted properties, but when compared to the studio’s other wildly original films (arguably The Incredibles owes more than a referential credit to the Watchmen and the Fantastic Four) even clever adaptation seems beneath expectations. Again, this complaint, or rather, ‘expression of disappointment’ is related to the expectations the studio has built for themselves over the years, so it rings a little hallow.

The two things that surprise me with this revisit are how great the action is and how unsuccessful most of the comedy is. There are far too many stupid bodily function jokes, and the characters are broad even by animation standards. The humour is relatively charming despite itself, but it’s definitely an off game for the studio. But the action is massive (relatively speaking I suppose, according to scale), and still pretty high on the studio’s achievement list, even if it doesn’t match the unmatchable The Incredibles. The film’s art design and direction also stands up over my memory’s expectations, utilizing some of the most abstract lighting schemes in the studio’s history.

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I still remember when A Bug’s Life made its DVD debut. It was the first Pixar movie on disc, it was the first ever direct digital transfer, it was specially formatted for both 2.35:1 widescreen and full frame, it came with every new iMac to show off screen capabilities, and it got regular rotation at every television selling store in America. I remember seeing it on the first plasma screens. What a difference eleven years makes.

Bug’s Life is old enough that it shows its age in its fine details. These days the animators can make everything look photo-realistic if they so choose, so it takes a surprising amount of adjustment to watch without using 2009 eyeballs. The natural surroundings stand up pretty well, but character animation is a bit plastic. If Bug’s Life was a new movie I probably wouldn’t be so kind, but what matters in this case is the comparative presentation, and compared to the already stunning DVD release the 1080p transfer is almost impossibly perfected. Colours are much brighter, which is especially valuable during the film’s darker scenes, as they’re lit by false bio-luminescence. The details are as sharp as the somewhat dated look allows without a hint of blocking, edge noise or enhancement, or over-modulation. There are no noise reduction artefacts or dirtied colours, and the blacks are rich and clean.

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The new lossless audio track shows its mettle pretty early when the grasshoppers come for their offering. The sound of their Harley Davidson inspired wings engulf the rear channels and roar over the LFE. The early bird attack is also teeming with action, including loads of surround helicopter bits, directional effects, and a cool contrasting bird call effect, where the actual call is high pitched, but supported by a heavy bass punch. There’s also the climatic rain chase, which will give even the best big budget action epics a run for their money. The voice cast, which is probably the heaviest hitting in the studio’s history, sounds clean and consistent, and voices move throughout the channels depending on placement in a natural fashion. Randy Newman’s score, which I’m actually not a fan of, is perhaps a little low on the track, and during action scenes is overwhelmed by the sound effects, but when it really counts (like Flick’s hero theme) things are warm and clean.

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New, Blu-ray exclusive extras start with a filmmaker’s roundtable (21:00 HD). The directors, writers, and producers talk mostly about how technically difficult the film was, and how important it was for the film to succeed post- Toy Story and post-independence. Fans can look forward to a brief glimpse of Toy Story and Finding Nemo in HD, footage of the actors recording, footage from the annual dramatic reading of the script, and footage from the bizarre EPK the studio made for Bug’s Life as well. The early draft is covered briefly here too, but in much more detail on the other Blu-ray exclusive ‘ A Bug’s Life—the First Draft’ (10:50 HD), with an intro from director/writer/producer John Lasseter. Dave Folley actually narrates the featurette, which is created using beautifully drawn colour storyboards, which have been slightly animated.

The special edition DVD ported extras begin with the filmmakers’ commentary, featuring co-writer/director John Lasseter, co-writer/assistant director Andrew Stanton, and editor Lee Unkrich. The track is a bit fluffy, and the stories are a bit obvious, not to mention repetitive if you’ve watched any of the other extras, but it’s still an entertaining and warm track. The tone is consistent and the runtime is filled rather thoroughly.

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Under the Pre-Production banner are an assortment of featurettes, most of which feature introduction from Lasseter, Stanton and various other employees. Things begin with ‘The Fleebee Reel’ (04:20 SD), which is the aforementioned production reel the studio put together for the annual Disney ‘update’ meeting. ‘Story and Development’ (05:30 SD) is a look at the storyboarding process (adorably using storyboards), and the story pitch (using PiP). Next are three storyboard to film comparisons (13:30 SD), and two abandoned sequences (05:30 SD). This section is completed with a ‘Research Documentary’ (05:30 SD), a brief look at the macro photography tests the crew filmed to prepare for the film.

Under the Production banner are more quick featurettes. These begin with ‘Behind the Scenes of A Bug’s Life’ (03:45 SD), and ‘Voice Casting’ (04:15 SD), your basic collection of made-for-TV EPKs. ‘Early Tests’ (05:25 SD)  is a little more technical tour of the first animation tests the studio put together to see if they could, in fact, achieve the then super-ambitious look they were attempting. Then, under the sub-heading of Progression Demonstration are featurettes concerning ‘Storyreel’ (04:00 SD), ‘Layout’ (03:00 SD), ‘Animation’ (03:00 SD), and ‘Shaders and Lighters’ (03:00 SD).

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Next up is a featurette on the sound design, hosted by Gary Rydstrom (13:00 HD). Though a surround presentation would have been ideal, it’s still a fun comparison, using the raw folley and the final mix. Under Release are the ad and poster galleries, trailers, and ‘character interviews. Also included is Geri’s Game (04:55 HD), the Oscar nominated short that opened the film on its original release, a Disney Silly Symphony short that partially inspired the film called ‘Grasshopper and the Ants’ (08:15 with intro SD), which was originally included on the DVD as an Easter Egg, and three image galleries (HD). Perhaps the favourite among the extras are the HD Outtakes, which were originally presented after the film in tiny boxes.

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A Bug’s Life just isn’t as good as the perfection we’ve come to expect from Pixar Studios, but it’s still a rousing piece of film entertainment, and stands up as a technical achievement, and surprisingly enough, as an action film. The film, which was the first ever direct digital release in the early days of DVD, looks so perfect on Blu-ray it starts to really show its age, and sounds better than most big budget shoot ‘em ups on my shelf. The extras are almost exclusively ported from the old special edition DVD release, but there are a few new additions.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.