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James Frawley
Joseph Bologna, Stockard Channing, John Beck, Rene Auberjonois, Ned Beatty, Bob Dishy, Ruth Gordon, Sally Kellerman, Richard Mulligan, Lynn Redgrave
Lawrence J. Cohen, Fred Freeman

Rated PG.

Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
English Digital Mono
French Digital Mono

Runtime: 88 min.
Price: $24.99
Release Date: 7/16/2002

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The Big Bus (1976)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Before I screened The Big Bus on DVD, it already suffered from two strikes against it. For one, I maintain a general disdain for parodies. For every winner like Murder By Death we find scads of clunkers like Scary Movie or Not Another Teen Movie. Most parodies offer nothing more than limp and uncreative experiences that leave me cold.

In addition, my friend Kevin adores The Big Bus, which gave it a second strike. Kevin and I agree on many things, but every once in a while our tastes diverge - sometimes violently so. I noted this when I reviewed The Jerk; he thinks itís one of the all-time greats, but the movie does nothing for me.

Kevin fell for The Big Bus a decade or so ago when he saw it on cable, and I obtained a videotape copy for him. I took in the film theatrically and liked it, but I was only nine at the time. When I found the video for Kevin - no easy feat, since the movie went out of print years earlier - I screened it myself and didnít understand why he liked it so much.

With this new DVD, the possibility of the third strike loomed. Did The Big Bus swing and miss? Nope. To extend my lame baseball analogy, the film managed to connect. It didnít knock the ball out of the park, but I think it managed a clean double.

A spoof of the disaster flicks that prospered in the Seventies, The Big Bus depicts the maiden voyage of the Cyclops, the worldís first nuclear-powered bus. About to make a non-stop trip from New York to Denver, problems abound. First the driver and co-driver go down and need to be replaced. Bus designer Kitty Baxter (Stockard Channing) recruits her old flame, disgraced alleged cannibal Dan Torrance (Joseph Bologna), and he brings in ďShouldersĒ OíBrien (John Beck) as his assistant. The latter earned his name because he tends to drive on the shoulders.

As led by the iron lung bound Ironman (Josť Ferrer), the oil producers of the world want to stop the project, so his brother Alex (Stuart Margolin) must try to sabotage the big bus. He plants a bomb on the vehicle and also wants to stage an electronic earthquake to stop the bus.

Along the way, we meet the usual assortment of colorful passengers. These include bitter and questioning priest Father Kudos (Rene Auberjonois), vengeful fashion designer Camille Levy (Vanessa Redgrave), and bickering soon-to-divorce couple Claude (Richard Mulligan) and Sybil Crane (Sally Kellerman). Eventually the trip suffers from the actions of the baddies. Dan has to overcome his reputation and save the day.

Some parts of The Big Bus clearly spoof specific flicks. For example, the Old Lady (Ruth Gordon) is a direct evocation of Helen Hayes's character from Airport. In addition, Father Kudos offers a callback to Father Karras from The Exorcist. We also get a few situations that hearken to a specific movie, like a segment in the bus driver bar that spoofs West Side Story.

However, most of The Big Bus provides a more generic parody of the disaster film genre, and thatís why it mostly succeeds. Crummy flicks like Scary Movie do nothing more than repeat scenes from other movies with some allegedly comic twist; itís humor based on recognition and nothing more.

Better parodies adopt a tone that lampoons concepts in a less specific way that actually requires some cleverness, and The Big Bus offers lots of good little bits in that vein. The movie excels when it comes to low-key lunacy. It features many small moments of funniness that could easily be missed, like the shuttle bus that only drives a few feet. Even the moronic concept of the non-stop bus trip is terrific; I love the twist that it goes from New York to Denver, which seems like a strange destination.

Director James Frawley - who also did 1979ís hit The Muppet Movie - keeps things light and brisk for the most part, and the actors all clearly delight in their intentional hamminess. Redgrave seems especially sly and delicious as the slutty socialite, but all the performers provide good work, and they help make the movie more memorable than it otherwise might be.

Probably my only real complaint about The Big Bus relates to its last act. The first two-thirds of the film move along quite nicely and maintain a solidly funny experience. However, the movie starts to peter out toward the end. Once the disaster strikes, the story grinds to a halt, and the comedy becomes fairly bland. No, this isnít some form of post-9/11 sensitivity; I just donít find many amusing bits in the filmís uninspired finale.

Nonetheless, The Big Bus remains a moderate winner. I donít think Iíll ever embrace the film as strongly as my friend Kevin has, but I feel it offers a quirky and clever experience for the most part. The movie mixes a lot of winningly subtle gags with some terrific performances and comes across as a lot of fun.

The DVD Grades: Picture B / Audio B- / Bonus F

The Big Bus appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While I feared the worst from this transfer, it surprised me and generally provided a very good piece of work.

Virtually all of the filmís problems stemmed from print flaws. During the opening credits, these became quite heavy. I saw lots of marks, dirt, grain and other defects as the credits rolled and the film began. The image cleaned up considerably after that point, though it still displayed a lot of concerns. Moderate amounts of specks, grit, debris and other marks continued to mar the presentation throughout the film.

Without those problems, The Big Bus would have merited an ďAĒ-level grade, for in every other way, it looked terrific. Sharpness seemed excellent. The film remained crisp and concise at all times and never displayed any concerns related to softness. Jagged edges and moirť effects also presented no issues, and I witnessed no signs of edge enhancement.

Largely due to the tacky Seventies production design, The Big Bus offered a very bright and lively palette, and the DVD replicated these tones nicely. The colors consistently appeared vivid and vibrant, and they showed no signs of noise, bleeding, or other concerns; even some scenes that featured colored lighting appeared tight and concise. Black levels also came across as deep and solid, while shadow detail was appropriately dense but not excessively thick. Except for the mix of print flaws, I thought The Big Bus looked very good.

I got another pleasant surprise with the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of The Big Bus. Actually, I didnít expect a 5.1 remix along with the filmís original ďrestoredĒ mono track, and I definitely didnít think the 5.1 audio would sound so good. The soundfield maintained a pretty monaural focus, at least in regard to speech and effects. Those elements largely remained fairly anchored in the middle speaker, though some effects broadened out at times. The mix provided a decent general sense of environment, and it also added greater involvement for some of the louder bits; a thunderstorm and an earthquake both showed good use of the side and rear speakers.

Music worked best in this regard. The score demonstrated very solid stereo imaging and really added a lot to the mix. Delineation of the elements appeared distinct and accurate; I felt very impressed by the presentation of the music.

In regard to audio quality, The Big Bus was more of a mixed bag, but it still seemed fairly solid. Speech came across worst. Most of the time, the dialogue appeared acceptably clear and accurate, but a moderate amount of edge interfered with some lines, and I also thought the dialogue generally seemed somewhat thin. Intelligibility remained fine throughout the movie, though.

Effects also suffered from some distortion, especially when they became loud. Explosions didnít crackle badly, but they could have come across as more distinct. Dynamics usually seemed fairly tepid, though the louder segments - like the earthquake - offered a reasonable rumble.

Again, the score provided the strongest portions of the soundtrack. The music consistently sounded nicely vivid and robust, and the definition of the various instruments seemed surprisingly accurate. Dynamic range appeared quite positive, and the music even boasted some pretty solid bass. The moderate distortion heard at times knocked my grade down to a ďB-ď, but I still found The Big Bus to present a relatively fine auditory experience.

The only area in which this DVD of The Big Bus falls flat relates to its extras. We get none - not even a trailer! That comes as a disappointment, especially because Iíd love to hear from the director; a commentary would have been great. However, I suppose this is one of those cases in which we should simply be happy the movie hit DVD at all; I canít imagine Paramount heard much clamor for it.

I donít know about anybody else, but my friend Kevin will be excited about this disc. He adores The Big Bus and thinks itís one of the great comedies. I canít agree with that, bit I feel it offers a generally amusing and likable little spoof that offers more hits than misses. Kevin will definitely gladly retire his old pan and scan videotape and replace it with this flawed but still pretty solid widescreen release. Picture and sound display some flaws, but they both come across stronger than I expected and seem quite good for the most part. Despite the absence of extras, I find myself pretty content with the DVD edition of The Big Bus and definitely endorse it for fans.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.3611 Stars Number of Votes: 36
5 3:
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