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Bee Movie: A Very Jerry 2-Disc Edition

DreamWorks Animation (November 2 2007), DreamWorks/Paramount Home Entertainment (March 11 2008), 2 discs, 90 mins plus supplements, 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, Rated PG, Retail: $36.98

Storyboard:

Little bee Barry B. Benson (voice of Jerry Seinfeld) feels ready to break out of the monotony of black and yellow striped life and finds his way out of the hive and into the affections of florist Vanessa Bloome (Rene√© Zellweger), who eventually helps Barry sue the human race for years and years of honey abuse. Yep, it’s another sophisticated urban comic parable from DreamWorks, who find a solid partnership in their pairing with Seinfeld, which should lead to further collaboration.

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The Sweatbox Review:

In a funny way, there really isn’t a lot to say about DreamWorks’ Bee Movie. While it is vastly enjoyable and undemanding entertainment, it seems we have become so used to these kinds of films – and have been so swamped with them – that even the good ones now come and go without much fanfare. No sooner than one has been out in the theater for more than a week, than we’re being presented with images from the studio’s next movie – sometimes two! Throw in the product from any number of competing animation companies, and it’s not the once every four years that animated movies used to come along anymore…now it’s more like every four months – if that!

And that’s a shame because there are some good little movies getting lost in the shuffle. DreamWorks’ own Flushed Away (in collaboration with Aardman) and Over The Hedge were much better than average critter movies we got in 2006-07, and here they bounce back again, after the gawd-awful Shrek The Turd, with a bright and colorful, finely tuned and sharply scripted vehicle for Jerry Seinfeld that could well be their best film, if not since Antz, then certainly Shrek 2.

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Actually, Bee Movie has a lot in common with Antz, DWs’ first foray into CGI insects, though the two films couldn’t be more different. Both feature extremely prominent Jewish comedians who had conquered their respective mediums (Woody Allen with feature films, Seinfeld with his genius eponymous television show about nothing), playing insect roles in which their characters yearn to break away from their colony’s routine, run of the mill lives and eventually leave on a quest to find something more. Both films are likewise revealed to be set in New York’s Central Park, and each plays with the conventions we are aware with in each creature’s place in the world. But whereas Antz was content to otherwise play their characters as real insects in a “real” world, Bee Movie takes a more fantastical route, with their black and yellow fellows buzzing around in miniature-miniature automobiles, working in factory-like hives, and worrying about job satisfaction. Yep, Seinfeld is alive and well and living in bee land…!

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In fact, these flights of fancy are Bee Movie’s strong points: there’s a delightfully old fashioned feel to the film, from the caricatures and screwball comedy dialogue, all very reminiscent of the 1940s – if they were making CG movies in that era, they would look like Bee Movie. In fact, from a design viewpoint, Bee Movie is actually perhaps DWs’ best looking outing, and had this story been told in traditional animation it would be being mentioned in the same breath as the terrific classic era Fleischer Brothers feature Mr Bug Goes To Town, which I still can’t figure out why someone doesn’t put out a decent, original edition of, even to cash-in on the animated bug craze.

Not all of the modelling is top notch: Vanessa herself is more than a bit suspect, animated awfully as are most of the humans apart from John Goodman’s lawyer. And no one seems to want to bother to change clothes, even though Bee Movie takes place over at least several weeks. I only noted one or two dress changes from Vanessa in the whole movie! Some secondary characters and crowd fillers are also reused, though unfortunately much more noticeably than usual: the flower girl in the Princess And The Pea parade float and a flight attendant look like they could be twins, while a security guard, pilot and various other non-important male characters all look extremely similar, often to a distracting degree. But I loved the famous faces caricatures of Sting and Ray Liotta – this is exactly how “Tom Selleck” should have been spoofed in Meet The Robinsons – recognisable as the celebrities themselves, but not in a way that would pull one out of the animated world in the way a real life photo does.

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While I’m semi-griping, I must make note of the prolific Patrick Warburton, who pops up again here and unfortunately grates as much as he’s likely to given that we’re now facing dangerous levels of Warburton-overexposure. Despite a very fun live-action appearance in Underdog, here he comes off as vastly annoying; clich√© and standard as he has now become in the many roles he has become overused in. The guy has a great animated voice, and good luck to him hoovering up all the jobs he can while there’s work to be had, but it’s just the same shtick all the time, over and over, and although it’s not as bad as he might have been had he been playing one of the jock-bees collecting the pollen, he reaches new heights of overplaying – and over loudness – that it can only be a matter of time before his attachment to any project could well start putting people off.

In theaters, some didn’t seem to appreciate Bee Movie’s “episodic” nature, but I really don’t see it that way – the movie’s narrative structure takes on a progressive nature, with each plot point powering the story forward to its next event. As in life, everything we do has a consequence, good or bad, and Bee Movie follows this linear thinking by building each experience on the one that came before: as Barry finds out more about our world, he is propelled to take further action, leading to further consequences, reaction and more action. Just like life. And kinda like Jerry Seinfeld’s original show.

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From the playful DreamWorks logo (where a bee stings the Peter Pan-like dream fishing boy) and opening text scrawl, Bee Movie whisks along with real energy. The movie, visually and vocally, is packed with ‘bee-isms’ – those many plays on words and pictorial puns that reference the bee world and place it into context in ours. I was “amazed” at how openly Jewish the film was – no bad thing of course, but something out of the ordinary to keep alluding to in such a commercial family outing, even if its perhaps no surprise given the creators behind it. These themes – maybe usually referenced in passing in a hundred live-action comedies over the years – seemed to have been placed intentionally throughout Bee Movie much more than in any other mainstream film I’ve seen in a while, which is by no means any kind of “issue”, by the way, but just an observation. I picked up such nods from the way every female character wore their hair (naturally in a Bee Hive style!), to Renee Zellweger’s so-called “wonky eyes”, which struck me on the big screen as an attribute perceptible in many Jewish ladies. Dialogue lines such as “I hope she’s Bee-ish” only confirm the nature of this observation – one that does give Bee Movie even more of its own unique attitude.

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And Bee Movie does have attitude, from Seinfeld’s dialogue readings (he really sounds like he’s having real fun here) to the “guest spots” of Chris Rock (as a blood-sucking Mosquito lawyer) and Goodman’s lawyer – another potentially overused animation voice, but one that has the good decency to do more than just shout. Even Zellweger isn’t as obvious and recognisable as Vanessa, and though she may come over as a bit of a ditz, she’s a genuine girl at hear. Despite some grumbling from some unsatisfied reviewers at the time of Bee Movie’s theatrical release, the question of inter-species relationships never actually materialises: despite mild infatuation, Barry and Vanessa are never suggested to be more than just good friends…there’s just no hint of sexual tension, even if Barry is romantically smitten. Vanessa is, for good or bad, linked to Warburton’s over shouty sap throughout, and it’s only Barry’s best pal (Matthew Broderick, providing some very subtle vocals) who suggests she’s more than just a girl friend.

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Once Barry has won his lawsuit, the story is effectively over, but Bee Movie, like so many other current entertainments, like Enchanted, feels the need for a “big ending”. Though the film looks for some excitement in a stupidly implausible plane sequence in which the bees must come to the rescue of a failing jumbo jet, this is all only partially successful but still much more enjoyable than going out, a la Shrek 3, with a flatter than flat and wholly uninspired and insincere speech. Bee Movie’s plane set up is ridiculous, but we are talking about a movie in which bees are revealed to be able to talk, so some level of disbelief must certainly be suspended and this climax is somewhat rescued itself by a highly amusing payoff. I didn’t even think the fact the bees could talk was any kind of issue – how do we know they can’t talk!?

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Bee Movie does drag a little in the section between winning the court case and landing the plane, but other than that DreamWorks and Jerry Seinfeld have made a good pairing that has brought out the strengths in both, and resulted in a pleasing effort that, while not perfect, did bring a great many smiles to my face. Being set, like Antz, in Central Park, one might have hoped for a little cross-pollination, but despite ample opportunity (I suspected that we might have heard more from Dan Aykroyd’s wasp), this seems to have been intentionally passed over. With Woody Allen and Seinfeld both treading the same paths, a meeting of the minds, if only for a sequence, might have been great fun. Perhaps Bee Movie was already talky enough – its greatest successes are the lovely, rounded 1940s visuals, and Jerry Seinfeld himself, as it should given that this is his first major screen outing since his show ended several years ago. Providing him with the perfect vehicle to translate his observational humor to the big screen, and perhaps the studio’s most successful all-round entertainment since Antz, Bee Movie is sweet!

Is This Thing Loaded?

This being a DreamWorks Animation release, we’re surely in for a sneak peek at what they have in store for us, right? Never ones to disappoint, we’re presented with the extremely fun trailer for the upcoming Kung Fu Panda and a new Ben Stiller-introduced preview to Madagascar 2: The Crate Escape, proving that, for every decent, original project they churn out, DreamWorks has to rely on standard fare franchised product. Paramount’s distribution arm leans on the disc to promote their Spiderwick Chronicles, yet another Rings/Potter knock-off that rightfully sank without much trace just before Christmas (a Kung Fu Panda game trailer is added in a separate Previews section). All previews are presented in anamorphic widescreen, as is the main Menu, which playfully reflects Barry’s bee world as seen in the film’s closing credit sequence and makes for neat continuity.

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Providing something we haven’t seen in a DreamWorks package for a while – a whole second disc! – the extras themselves are split fairly evenly between both discs. Chief amongst the extras on Disc One is a Jerry and Filmmaker Commentary with Seinfeld, naturally, and various members of the crew, including writers, editors and the film’s directors Steve Hickner and Simon J Smith, here without his amazing dancing bear (I wonder if that’s what the J in his name is for, he must get that a lot). It’s a very relaxed, very honest, and extremely open track – well worth a listen – but marred slightly by the recording mechanics: some people are set too far back in the room at various times so as to not come over as really audible. A minor nitpick, but one that does slightly spoil enjoyment of an otherwise very easy to listen to commentary.

Unlike another prominent animation studio that we won’t mention here, DWs have included a good selection of elements to the Bee Movie marketing approach (though not enough), much of which rests on the live-action shoulders of its star voice Jerry Seinfeld. Live-Action Trailers (4:10) presents the two mildly amusing previews (Windshield and Steven) from when the studio was trying to convince us that Bee Movie was going to be some weird, live-action guys in a suit movie. That idea is tossed aside in the second spot when the on-set difficulties of making Seinfeld “fly” urge Steven Spielberg to suggest simply making Bee Movie as a cartoon, allowing the now animated Barry to go on a humorous fly about much more impressively. Fun stuff, which is repeated (almost ad infinitum) in the sixteen TV Juniors: apparently behind the scenes mini-clips that lift the lid on Bee Movie’s production and which ran randomly on NBC.

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While I don’t know why the term TV Juniors was chosen, these do turn out to be pretty funny things (running 23:20 in all), with everyone involved taking the joke nature on board and having fun with things. However, that’s as much as it goes for the first handful, after which the continuous “hey, I’m Jerry Seinfeld and welcome to TV Juniors” gets awful tired awful fast. However, I’m much more in favor of these kinds of things being included in DVDs, so I’m not going to gripe: these clips were never meant to be sat through in one sitting, and they’re here for archival purposes more than anything. Plus, there’s some really funny stuff here: a meeting with DreamWorks head honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg, a tour of the campus’ departments, a casting standoff with Ray Liotta, and more than a few digs at the continuing nature of the Shrek series (“I can’t wait for Shrek 19”). The first handful are presented in 16:9, but the appeal seems to wear off in the later 4:3 spots, presented in a combination of letterbox and full-frame, though Jerry’s so absurd it could be real theme song for Super Chicken, the mind-controlling DreamWasher and the pitching of various so absurd they could be real animated movie ideas (the story of shelves, “Shelf Life”, and the take on Iwo Jima from the point of view of sand crabs sound like they could happen somewhere!) all raise big laughs.

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A series of Lost Scenes and Alternate Endings present three deleted moments (4:55) from the movie, all in storyboard form. Barry’s Interview presents a different version of the “work orientation” scene that’s in the movie, while The Queen introduces the dominant female of the hive who speaks to Barry after he’s opened his mouth to the humans. Liotta On A Plane, while being rightly cut, is perhaps the best of all: more mayhem would have been caused by the disgruntled actor as he attempts to get his own back on Barry during the film’s climatic moments, but it does feel a bit forced, playing on his mental tough guy image but perhaps pushing it too far over the edge. There is a lot of repetition in the several different endings (14:35), all of which deal with alternative versions of resolving the “tragic doomed love triangle” between Barry, Vanessa and Ken. It’s interesting to see the variants, even if there isn’t a lot of variety between them. The best one is the first, in which Barry and Vanessa fly off in a real-life reprise of Barry’s earlier dream, and one in which Barry’s next adventure sees him setting off to conquer outer space. Two attempts at tying Barry and Vanessa together outright ruin their carefully plotted relationship, but really the right way to end the film was chosen for the final movie. Jerry provides all with a quick narrated introduction.

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Jerry’s Flight Over Cannes documents Seinfeld’s much reported on publicity stunt at the Cannes Film Festival, where he famously donned the Bee Movie costume and was wire-flown over the beach and onto the pier to meet co-voice Chris Rock, before the premiere. The use of an action cue from the score struggles to bring any real sense of danger to the three minute recap, but it was a unique moment, that’s sure. Much more than just a talking head profile, Inside The Hive: The Cast Of Bee Movie is a healthy 15 minute look at the production, covering all aspects from the movie’s genesis at a dinner between Seinfeld and Spielberg to how Jerry learnt the animation process from the ground up. Being that Bee Movie is so rich in big name, recognisable face vocal talents, there’s a terrific amount of in the booth footage that reveals the great rapport between the on-screen characters was captured from having performers bounce off each other in the recording sessions – a rare occurrence in animated picture making.

Disc Two offers up both more of the same and the usual kinds of features that we’ve come to see on DreamWorks’ DVD releases. The special features continue with Tech Of Bee Movie (7:30), a more technical look at the production from the artists’ side of things. Directors Hickner and Smith join Jerry in the talking heads stakes, expressing their intent for the movie, while head of digital operations Derek Chan reels off a whole bunch of numbers relating to the oodles of computer power (provided by HP, as DreamWorks’ promotional partnership can never fail to make note of!) that Bee Movie required. There’s a brief description of DWs’ teleconferencing Halo system, but not a lot else, and instead of seeing the real nitty-gritty of how the show came together, this merely runs the usual route of simply expressing how new boundaries were crossed, quality levels were upped and technology was pushed. Apparently, Bee Movie is full of things that could “never have been done before” without the processing power of AMD and HP (whose logos are prominently displayed at the clip’s end). So now you know.

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While I was expecting Meet Barry B. Benson to perhaps be a Seinfeld profile for those unimaginable few who might not have been so familiar with the comedian, it turns out to be a rather pointless “activity” where pre-recorded questions have merely been synched up to appropriate scenes from the movie, usually where Barry has already been asked a question and gives an answer. So ask Barry how he learned to talk, and he’ll come back with the “Mama, Dada, honey…you pick it up” line. With only eleven questions, there is some new animation, but it’s limited to the same set up and the material isn’t hilarious, with each clip only running a scant few seconds. Nice idea, but not one that adds tremendously to the value of the second disc.

A two-minute We Got The Bee music video is presented in 16:9 without any accreditation to who actually performs it, though all I know is that the clip – a mixture of soft looking movie clips and grunged up New York footage featuring Seinfeld and a bunch of bee costumed kids cut to a loud track which samples the occasional line from the film – gave me a headache. The DreamWorks Jukebox is also back again, another pointless grouping of song moments from the studio’s films that do little more than to promote them with the tag “own it on DVD”. Ranging anywhere from a minute to two and a half long, it’s just ironic that the majority of songs (I’m A Believer, Livin’ La Vida Loca, Car Wash, I Like To Move It Move It, etc) aren’t even ones written specifically for DreamWorks pictures. Coupled with a new, fiddly to operate jukebox player, your best bet if you really have to sit through these clips is to select the DWs logo icon on the right hand side to play them all through in one sitting.

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Heading into DreamWorks Kids, we’re offered a number of featurettes and games that gear towards the little ones who, ironically, probably don’t understand much of Bee Movie’s clever-clogs scripting! The Buzz About Bees (7:05) reuses film clips to convey a heap of bee trivia, The Ow! Meter activity looks at various kinds of bees, their stinging capacity and how to avoid being stung by a bee, and That’s Un-Bee-Lievable is a selection of mostly true or false trivia questions testing the player’s knowledge on our the ins and outs of the insects. Be A Bee gets the player to answer more questions in order to determine which job at Honex they’d be most suited for, and Pollination Practice is a frustrating point and shoot game of the kind that never works well in a set-top player. A DVD-ROM section offers up DreamWorks’ usual good selection of printables, including several coloring pages, honey recipes, three Sudoku challenges, and a Bee Movie ActiVision game demo (for PC only), as well as links to DreamWorks Animation and the Bee Movie websites.

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To be honest, the majority of the good stuff is on disc one and in an odd way it might have made Bee Movie’s second disc feel more valuable had all the bonus features – apart from the commentary, natch – been moved there. As it stands, there really isn’t a lot to get excited about on Bee Movie’s Disc Two, a light selection of filler at best. Had the Tech Of Bee Movie – itself only a promotional tool – also been included on the first disc, it would have made for a pretty neat package as was, but much better and cleaner would have been to feature the movie on disc one, and all bonus extras on the second platter, which would have really balanced things up and come across much more impressively. The extras are good (and much better than the single disc release), but the good stuff is all on the first disc. Missing are a further two fully animated trailers, any TV spots, a number of web featurettes and, especially, the hilarious Dolbee Digital promo that should have been a shoe-in to open the first disc with.

Case Study:

I’m really not understanding the slipcase decisions at Paramount these days. A bonkers direct to video outing like South Park: Imaginationland and sure fire hits such as Shrek The Third get deluxe outer packaging while major new releases like Beowulf and, now, Bee Movie, have to make do with standard keepcases. Making up for the lack of anything special package-wise is the second disc, I suppose. The sleeve as is works a lot better “in the flesh” than the many images of it floating online would have you believe. Aside from the boring Today quote, this is a pretty eye-catching and appropriate cover, with even the “hey, you gotta see this, it has Jerry Seinfeld in it!” image of Jerry himself atop the front not being as “offensive” as it might first appear. As with many recent DreamWorks sleeves, there’s basically nothing about the film on the back, though there’s a decent run-down of the bonus features. Even if it is all a little too Jerry-centric, who can blame them wanting to show off their new comedy partner to maximum effect?

Ink And Paint:

C’mon, if a digitally created movie doesn’t look more than great on DVD in this day and age, something’s wrong, right? Well, Bee Movie looks pretty darn good, but I found a softness to the image that I don’t recall theatrically. Moving those extras to Disc Two may well have given the movie more room to breathe. It won’t degrade from anyone’s enjoyment of the movie, but perhaps the now cancelled HD-DVD would have been the one to spring for. As with other recent hi-def Paramount titles, it can only be a matter of time before Bee Movie is on sale as a Blu movie, on Sony’s Blu-Ray format.

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NOTE: A quick word of warning to check your Bee Movie DVDs on purchase – our original copy was sent to us and the discs had come loose in the case, which inhibited playback on the movie disc. A second copy was whisked along to us, and even though the discs were firmly secured, the movie disc again had major issues playing in my regular home theater player. It worked fine in a regular set-top machine, another deck and my PC software, but be aware that the movie disc might have some issues playing in some models, for whatever reasons.

Scratch Tracks:

The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track is as fun as the movie. The often hilarious but sometimes shouty dialogue is crystal clear, even during the many loud moments (everything is so hyper all the time, especially Warburton…give it a rest, pal). Rupert Gregson-Williams’ score (recalling Michael Kamen’s sublime Brazil, which was referenced in this film’s trailers) pumps away, doing its best to compete with everything else going on, not least the whizzing sound effects, but it all works. Oddly, I needed to keep my volume set fairly high…reducing it down even a notch or two greatly reduced the overall sound level, even though I checked my settings. Curious, but in all other regards, Bee Movie’s soundtrack buzzes along nicely, even if that specially animated Dolbee promo should have been here but goes missing. French and Spanish subs and dubs are also packed in.

Final Cut:

The $37 cost for a two-disc set may swerve a fair few towards the single disc release, itself overpriced at $30, and goodness knows how much you’ll have to fork out for an eventual Blu-Ray edition. Bee Movie is fun, but DreamWorks’ premium pricing doesn’t quite equate to a premium movie, and though the extras package is stuffed, the second disc is filler and the lack of special packaging does feel like the company is trying to squeeze every last ounce of honey out of our pockets without the full goods in return or for what other companies charge for the same amount. Ironically, to get the good stuff – commentary, deleted scenes, etc – you need to go for the two-disc, since the single isn’t a mirror of the first disc from this set and only features the movie and a selection of the mostly weaker features (the music video, jukebox and kids section). Bee Movie is well worth a viewing either as a rental or a purchase pick up, but you’ll need to budget accordingly as to whether you need the two-disc’s decent extras, or if the single disc suit your bee-spoke needs.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

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