The kings of surreal comedy return to the big screen for one last time as the Monty Python team turn their attentions to the meaning of life. Unlike their two previous films, The Life of Brain and The Holy Grail, the group have returned to their roots and essentially created a number of sketches and musical routines to deal with all the stages of life from being born in a hospital to finally meeting the grim reaper.
And so, after the short feature presentation of The Crimson Permanent Assurance, we join the Monty Python team in the first chapter of the story called The Miracle of Birth where some poor old expectant mother is ushered into the delivery room only to be greeted by the machine that goes "ping" and a host of other expensive equipment. Onto the flip side of the coin we then continue with The Miracle of Birth in the third world (well OK, deepest and darkest Yorkshire) and the problems with being a member of the catholic church and the consequences of not being able to wear one of those little rubber things.
With the offspring growing rapidly it is time to move onto the next chapter in the Meaning of Life, Growth and Learning. It is here we learn about the wonders of school assemblies, rugby and the abject boredom of sitting through sex education lessons (they certainly weren't like that when I was at school!). And no young man's growing up experience would be complete without a good old fashioned war so off we head to war where rank certainly has its privileges. Just make sure you bake a nice cake and take precautions against mosquitoes and rampaging tigers.
Next up is Middle Age and the problems associated with having a conversation over a meal, usually Hawaiian style served in an authentic medieval English dungeon atmosphere. Just make sure you pick an interesting conversation from the menu, I can recommend the special of the day, Live Organ Transplants. And if you're a Rastafarian Jew, with a rather bored housewife, I' suggest you dispose of your organ donor card. This scene is actually rather gruesome (but also rather funny) and I'm sure Mary Whitehouse would have been having kittens - it may even go someway to explain its 18 certificate (although the previous sex education lessons may have helped!)
As you reach The Autumn Years those hectic days of work can be put on the backburner and you can enjoy life to its fullest. You may even discover just what the Meaning of Life is before your time is up. Just remember not to eat too much, and if you're full to bursting you must resist the temptation of the wafer thin mint. The Monty Python team wrap things up with a visit from the grim reaper in the final chapter Death. The end could be via execution (I'll go with Arthur Jarrett's choice!) or a particularly nasty batch of salmon moose and the trip to paradise.
And after all of that, the meaning of life is what? Well, according to Monty Python it's nothing special. Just try to be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book now and again, get some walking in and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations. Sounds reasonable enough to me, it's just a pity more people don't sit down and come up with the same idea. I'm sure the world would be a much healthier and safer place if they did.
The picture quality is a bit of a mixed bag with any problems purely down to the quality of the cameras used in production. Overall, the restoration work and transfer is quite remarkable and it could almost pass as a new film, even if Terry Jones would have you believe that all he did was put the film stock in a washing machine on a low temperature.
However, the picture can be a little grainy at times and where there are problems is it most likely down to dust on the camera lenses. You only have to watch the opening sequence of The Miracle of Birth to see my point. But putting this slight problem aside the colours are astonishingly rich and vibrant throughout with a good level of detail and above average bit-rate. There is the slight problem with grain, but the picture remains free from any signs of outlining and artifacting whilst the darker scenes tend to highlight the occasional problem with print damage and dust scratches.
Universal seem to be providing Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks on any old DVD these days. Whilst this is something which should be welcomed it can still be a little irreverent at times. After all, in a film such as The Meaning of Life there is little call for anything particularly fancy in the sound and surround department. Never the less, both formats are provided here and they're both as good as each other. Although Terry Gilliam sings the praises of the DVD format for bringing out deeper bass effects much better than what cinema can offer, it is only in the wonderful The Crimson Permanent Assurance feature that the sound has any chance to really shine.
For the age of the film, and the remastering work performed, both the 384Kbps Dolby Digital and 768Kbps DTS soundtracks are rather impressive. However, it is the superior separation of the DTS soundtrack which ensures it should be the soundtrack of choice, even if both sound formats are rather under utilised. Never the less, both formats offer dialogue which is crisp and clear in the centre channel and even the occasional use of the surround channels. The sound remastering also ensures that the musical numbers sound particularly good in either format.
It wouldn't be a Monty Python DVD without an unusual set of animated menus. And with this indeed being a Monty Python film both discs come equipped with a set animated and Dolby Digital 5.1 scored menus with various characters popping up on the screen and quoting lines from the film. Each sub menu is also animated and scored and the menus are easy to navigate through with each option easily visible and accessible.
Some companies seem to package a DVD in a some fancy packaging and then market it as a special edition. Fortunately, Universal have done both themselves and Monty Python fans a favour by releasing a two disc set that truly deserves the Special Edition title. Not only does it contain a directors cut of the film but it is accompanied by decent set of extras (you only have to look at the extensive list below to get Python fans in a flap) which are spread over the two discs.
And naturally, no Monty Python disc would be complete without some unusual extras. One such feature on the main disc is the Lonely People Soundtrack where you can "enjoy" the film accompanied by sound effects one of those annoying people who can't sit still during the film whilst other people keep ringing the door bell. It's obviously something you're not going to have on during the entire film (I got annoyed with it after only 5 minutes) but it's certainly a novelty item and something worth listening to once for a laugh.
With Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam directing portions of the film it is only natural that they should provide the audio commentary. Although it would have been nice to have the rest of the team there, and I expect it would have been a hoot to listen to once Michael Palin and Eric Idle got going, the two Terry's offer some interesting information on the film and the Python members. Not only do they comment on how the various scenes were shot, but they also manage to provide some interesting snippets of information on script issues and on set problems. It's just a pity that there is the occasional long silence and I got the impression that their comments were recorded separately. And if you don't fancy hearing them talk over the films audio you can also read their ramblings via a subtitle track.
I'd always known that The Meaning of Life was not a project that particularly interested John Cleese (he even refused to attend half of the script writing sessions, although I'm sure he was always first in line when the studio was handing out the pay cheques) so The Meaning of Making the Meaning of Life featurette was an interesting starting point. Not only does it contain some of their original interviews but the team have been reassembled, alas without the late Graham Chapman, to gather their thoughts now that the film has matured somewhat. Cleese's views are still the same, and there's certainly still a hint of friction on the subject, whilst Michael Palin and Eric Idle (who is obviously spending too much time in America and is picking up an awful half-accent) spends most of the time poking fun at the Python team.
As with the Making of featurette, the Re-mastering a Masterpiece documentary contains a rather interesting look at the films restoration process and includes an interview with restoration expert James C Katz. Whilst this is still a serious look at the process, both Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam put a typical Python slant on the proceedings. Whilst it doesn't sound that interesting at first, the Song and Dance featurette looks at the choreography involved in filming the Every Sperm is Sacred and Christmas in Heaven musical numbers. As usual, the perception of what goes on during the filming process goes out of the window as choreographer Arlene Philips and director Terry Jones point out some interesting facts and figures. Even one of the dancers, the now famous Jane Leeves of Frasier fame, offers some interesting stories about her dance number.
The Song Unsung features contains alternative versions of the songs recorded by their authors. The clips aren't from the film but Eric Idle and Terry Jones head to the recording studio to belt out their numbers with varying degrees of success. Somehow, I don't think Terry Jones will be getting a big record deal too soon. The Selling The Meaning of Life section contains a set of very American biased material used and unused to promote the movie. It ranges from trailers and TV spots to a truly awful American promo with a Mr. Creosote look-a-like.
The Education Tips looks like a newly created featurette for the DVD and contains some helpful information in preparing you for life in the real world. Running at just over 6 minutes, nearly 3 of those are taken up with a bizarre introduction from Michael Palin. The Snipped Bits section contains 7 deleted scenes, some with commentaries, of varying quality. The Martin Luther clip is rather funny whilst, on the flip side, the extended Gaston scene is hideously too long. Never the less, it's great to see them all here and the picture quality is reasonable too.
Finally, the Un Film de John Cleese, Virtual Reunion and What Fish Think features are rather pointless and typically Python. The Reunion feature has the team reunited, alas digitally, in a number of locations (do they never talk to each other anymore?) whilst the Fish feature is an overlong picture of a fish tank with the Python team adding the occasional comment as to what the fish is thinking. Two rather strange extras indeed whilst the Un Film de John Cleese feature is a rehash of the trailer with everyone's name crossed out and Cleese supposedly taking all of the credit.
I'll be the first to admit that I'm not a big fan of Monty Python and I find that most of their sketches are, well, just plain stupid and boring. Mind you, on the flip side of the coin I do like the mad antics of Bo' Selecta which other people may find equally boring and unfunny. The many Python fans are sure to be extremely happy with this special edition whilst new recruits may find it a little hard going. However, if you've never seen Monty Python's other films The Life of Brian or The Holy Grail then you should probably consider watching these first and only then will you become hooked on their strange antics.
One question though, what the hell is it with the fish? Answers on a postcard please....