NOTICE: Universal has issued replacements for the faulty Disc 1 in this 2-disc set. The ratings have been changed accordingly, and updates have been made to the review below. Those responsible for the first discs have been sacked.
What can be said about Monty Python that hasn't been heard before? By the 1980s, the highly successful comedy troupe had already changed the industry with their unique brand of British comedy and was looking for a bit of rest and relaxation. After 1979's classic 'Life of Brian', the Pythons decided to go their separate ways (at least on a movie-making level), and they stuck to their guns.
But not for long!
They were given an offer they couldn't refuse: "Return to the big screen one last time, and you'll never have to work again." So the Pythons returned one last time in 'The Meaning of Life', released just four years after Life of Brian. Instead of focusing on one specific time period, 'The Meaning of Life' jumps from year to year, never sticking with one specific character or setting. Birth, life, death, and everything in between. All Python fans have learned to expect the unexpected, but never at this level…live organ transplants, spontaneous song and dance, excessive vomiting, and other astounding events take place. For these reasons, it has divided more Python fans than any of the other movies…put simply, it's not everyone's cup of tea.
While most fans prefer the medieval antics of 'The Holy Grail' or the razor-sharp, focused satire found in 'Life of Brian', but there's still no doubt that 'The Meaning of Life' is required viewing for fans of great comedy. To me, it's a wonderful collage that has many more high points than low, and that's what counts. There's even a short film before the start (directed by Terry Gilliam) that ties in later. Despite its seemingly unorganized nature, it all holds together quite nicely, and has aged well in the 20 years since its original release.
Originally churned out as a bare-bones edition (much like 'The Holy Grail' and 'Life of Brian'), 'The Meaning of Life' finally gets the attention it deserves in a brand new 2-Disc Collector's Edition from Universal…and it's worth every penny!
Quality Control Department
By now, many of you have heard about the compression problems on this DVD, which produce a number of issues with the video. Various reports have included problems such as a blurry or shaky image during pausing, and more major problems with fast-moving objects during playback. All of the discs have the same problem, but the level of the problems varies from player to player. Although mine handles these problems quite well, I have to knock down the video rating a few points to be fair. It's a real shame, too, because the transfer is great otherwise.
CONTACT UNIVERSAL: Although no formal recall has been announced yet, please send your concerns to Universal directly by clicking here, even if the problems aren't major (just to send them a message). I've contacted them myself, and even suggested they throw in a free insert booklet to issue with the corrected discs! (Hey, it's worth a shot!)
UPDATE: The new replacement discs have been reissued (I got mine on November 24th), and the video looks awesome! The problems listed above have all been cleared up, allowing the beautifully remastered image to show through. This replacement disc will erase all previous doubts, so buy with confidence! I'll leave the "Contact Universal" link and the previous desciption above for a while, for those who haven't sent it for their replacements yet.
Despite the video problem, the audio sounds excellent! In addition to a clean 5.1 track, an additional DTS option is included. While not advertised on the packaging, the DTS option was listed by several online retailers. Whatever your choice may be, either of the audio options is excellent. Dialogue is easily heard (even to my American ears!) and that's the most important thing. After all, if you can't understand the dialogue, you can't get the joke. Some of the explosions could use a bit more bass (even in the more detailed and rich DTS option), but at least they sound loud and clear. The many songs throughout also sound great too, and really open up quite nicely.
Since the original releases, each of the Python films have been blessed with a new special edition packed with great extras. 'The Holy Grail' got a 2-disc set and 'Life of Brian' got the royal treatment from Criterion, and now 'The Meaning of Life' has its time in the sun! The special features are divided between the two discs, so let's get started!
Director's Cut: In addition to the theatrical version (set as the default), this all-new version of the film was created by seamlessly inserting three of the deleted scenes into the movie. They work well and fit in quite nicely. The quality on each one is very close to the rest of the movie (with the exception of 'The Adventures of Martin Luther', which looks 'old' on purpose). One disappointment was that the DTS audio option was not available, but it's still nice to see everything together.
Eric Idle Introduction: A short introduction to the film by, naturally, Eric Idle. This option is only available for the theatrical version. Between this and the Director's Cut, a smoother navigation for the versions of the movie would have helped things.
Audio Commentary with Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam: Another great track from these two, there are tons of great stories here (although some information is repeated in the documentary on Disc 2). Unfortunately, the other surviving Pythons are strangely absent.
Soundtrack for the Lonely: This is one of the funniest gag commentaries I've heard in quite some time. Comparable to "Subtitles for Those Who Didn't Like the Film" (from the Special Edition of 'The Holy Grail'), this gives you another completely different way to view the film. Without spoiling too much, it's basically an audio track of someone watching the film alone in their apartment, occasionally having a snack or speaking to people on the phone, but a much darker tale lurks underneath (you'll have to hear it to see what I mean). Occasionally, the rear speakers also kick in, when "the guy next door" yells at him to turn it down. Very funny stuff, and a great little bonus.
Deleted Scenes: A nice collection of scenes that didn't quite make it (total of about 20 minutes). As mentioned before, three of these can also be seen in the Director's Cut found on Disc 1, though they're all worth checking out at least once.
The Meaning of the Making of 'The Meaning of Life': A fabulous retrospective created for this DVD which features the remaining Pythons sharing their experiences about the movie. Unlike the Audio Commentary on Disc 1, everyone participates this time around. This runs for about 50 minutes, and I'm glad they took the time to create it.
Educational Tips to Prepare You for Life in the Real World: A short bit explaining the importance of choosing an expensive school. Hey, because it's there, that's why.
Un Film de John Cleese: A new trailer for the film, with only the John Cleese parts remaining. A special introduction is even narrated by the man himself! If nothing else, this will help you appreciate just how many different character roles go into Python movies.
Remastering a Masterpiece: A very funny featurette about the steps taken to restore the film, starring the Pythons themselves as the "experts." I'll give you a hint: One of the scenes involves a washing machine. Things get pretty ugly!
Song and Dance: A brief featurette about two of the songs from the movie, "Every Sperm is Sacred," and the closing song "Christmas in Heaven". Pretty basic stuff, but nice to have anyway.
Songs Unsung: Alternate versions of the final songs. Very strange indeed, if you're used to only hearing the real versions, as most of these are sung by different cast members.
Selling The Meaning of Life: A nice assortment of promotional material for the film. The standard trailer and TV spots are included, but there's also much more. Especially noteworthy are the 'Telepathy' short (a makeshift advertisement created on the set) and the unused poster artwork, which is done in a nice, animated fashion.
Virtual Reunion: This is a digtal reunion of the five remaining Pythons by way of 'blue screen', and they even attempt to hold a conversation with one another (with quite a bit of awkward silence). A very funny concept, but really only worthy of seeing once.
What Fish Think: The famous fish from the movie swim by, and say whatever's on their minds. If only they'd have made it into a screen saver on the DVD-Rom section...
DVD-Rom: How's that for segue? The DVD-Rom material includes the complete screenplay, The Lost Scenes, Song Sheets (nice inclusion!), and something called 'The Fat Recipes'. I'll get back to you on that last one, but I've got a very funny feeling about it.
Before I wrap up the extras, I'd also like to mention a few nice touches included on the DVD which were not covered earlier. First of all, the menus are a blast (as always) and really capture the spirit of the film well. In addition to this, all of the special features are presented in anamorphic widescreen, and include optional English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing. This is an especially thoughtful move on Universal's part, and here's hoping other studios continue the trend.
Should anything else have been included?
As mentioned earlier, the slight confusion with the movie set-up could have been ironed out, but that's just me being picky. In fact, the only thing missing that surprised me was the lack of an insert booklet…sadly, only an advertisement for other Universal titles was included. If anything, it would have been an excuse to see more excellent artwork by Terry Gilliam. Other than that, the only other thing they could have included was "one wafer-thin mint." I'm stuffed!
Whew…what a great set of extras! From top to bottom, this was one of the most satisfying DVDs of the year. Thankfully, the video problem has finally been addressed, and this release finally got the treatment it deserved! I don't think much more can be said about The Meaning of Life, other than "buy it now, or else". Unfortunately, due to Universal's crappy quality control department, I have no choice but to demote this 2-disc set from the DVD Talk Collector's Series back down to Recommended. It's still a great release, but the initial botching of this set gave it a black eye which is only just now starting to heal.
Randy Miller III is a sarcastic cartooning instructor based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in an art gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.