[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Joe Ranft (Story); Andrew Stanton, Donald McEnery, Bob Shaw (Screenplay) | Director: John Lasseter | Aired: 11/25/1998]
“Circus bugs? How can you be circus bugs?” – Flik
In the fall of 1998, filmgoers were surprised by the debut of a new computer-animated feature – the first one to premiere since Toy Story. This new film centered on an ant colony, and on one ant in particular who aspired to be more than just another bug in the system. While initially viewed as something of a kook, the ant eventually found favor in the eyes of the colony’s princess, and ended up saving his friends from a wicked insect who considered himself the true master of the colony. The film featured interesting characters, clever jokes, and impressively detailed animation.
That film was called Antz.
And it was followed a few weeks later by A Bug’s Life.
It may sound strange coming from such a dedicated Pixar fan as myself, but as it stands, I actually prefer DreamWorks’ debut animated feature over Pixar’s follow-up to Toy Story. That’s not to say that Antz is a perfect film by any stretch (the story meanders in spots, and it too often tries coasting on Woody Allen one-liners), but it’s an overall smarter and more sophisticated film than its Pixar-produced rival.
Still, we’re not here to talk about Antz, or even to peg A Bug’s Life as a shameless rip-off. (Despite the claims of former Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg that he “owned” the idea for an ant-based story, the two films did go into production right around the same time, and there are still plenty of dissimilarities between them.) We’re here to judge A Bug’s Life as its own entity, positing the question: How well does it hold up now?
Most animation studios, admittedly, would give their wisdom teeth for a sophomore film as well-produced as A Bug’s Life. But we’re not talking about any old studio here – this is Pixar, a corporation that had hit the ground running three years earlier with Toy Story. That film, as I outlined in my review, was a great blend of character and humor, all wrapped up in a terrific story. It also probably set some unfairly high expectations, which A Bug’s Life unfortunately failed to meet.
Inspired by the classic fable of the ant and the grasshopper, A Bug’s Life charts a familiar course, with a number of familiar characters – there’s Flik (Dave Foley), the underdog hero; Hopper (Kevin Spacey), the scheming, egotistical villain; Dot (Hayden Panettiere), the precocious child; Molt (Richard Kind), the dumb sidekick; and Atta (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), the princess who struggles to lead her people. (To the film’s credit, Atta is at least shouldered with more responsibility than most Disney princesses were at the time – which is kind of sad, seeing that she’s… an ant.)
Then, of course, there are the circus bugs. Much like the colorful toy box of supporting characters in Pixar’s previous film, the circus bugs represent a wide range of designs and personalities. They’re also afforded more screen time than Rex or Slinky or Potato Head were in Toy Story, which should theoretically mean they would get more development.
But as the saying goes, too many bugs spoil the broth. (That is how the saying goes, right? I hate finding bugs in my broth.) Between the numerous ants and grasshoppers and nearly a dozen circus critters, A Bug’s Life feels overstuffed, with too many characters and not enough time to develop most of them beyond their basic personalities. Some of the supporting critters are fun to watch (the highlight: Slim the walking stick, delightfully voiced by Frasier‘s David Hyde Pierce), but they more often than not tend to get in each other’s way.
Nowhere is this more evident than with the ants. Foley’s hapless nice-guy performance served him so amusingly well on NewsRadio, but it’s not strong enough to carry the dramatic weight of a feature film. His character’s arc – an underappreciated loner who eventually becomes the colony hero – is disappointingly straightforward. Flik’s independent thinking nicely builds toward the film’s messages about the strength of unity, but it doesn’t necessarily make for an intriguing character. The other ants hit their predictable character beats as the story demands them, with little excitement along the way. (Much hay is made, for example, over Dot’s inability to fly. When her inevitable triumphant flying sequence does occur, it just feels like an afterthought.)
Furthermore, the plot itself is riddled with the sort of clichés that will try the patience of all but the youngest of viewers. Flik’s contrived clumsiness causes all the food the ants have gathered to fall into the lake. He later comes to recruit the circus bugs by way of a misunderstanding. Later still, he is banished from the ant colony, only to return for the third-act climax. As I often say, a predictable story isn’t so bad if the characters are genuinely engaging. The characters in A Bug’s Life, however, are too blasé to sustain much interest.
So, I assume most of you are by this point wondering: What do I like about this film? Well, let’s talk about that animation. Following in the footsteps of Toy Story, A Bug’s Life makes the world of 3-D animation come alive with a vibrant world of miniscule wonder. The designs of the ants are somewhat flat (especially when compared to the other ant film of ’98), but the grasshoppers look effectively threatening, and the circus bugs are crisp and colorful. Each leaf and blade of grass is carefully rendered, looming threateningly over our main characters. (Tellingly, Hopper’s warning early in the film involves his return “when the last leaf falls.”)
The action, too, expands to pulse-pounding proportions – the expert visual timing of “Flaming Death,” the aerial excitement of the bird chase, and the multi-bug climax, which grows in tension as tank-sized raindrops begin to fall. There’s no shortage of entertainment when the film lets the visuals drive the story, as the “small creatures, big world” setting is handled even better than it was in Toy Story.
And hey – it’s not like the story or characterizations in A Bug’s Life are bad – they’re just a little overly comfortable and familiar. Coming from Pixar, which had just given us Toy Story and would go on to produce a string of excellent films over the next decade or so, A Bug’s Life simply feels underwhelming.
Perhaps some will judge me as being too harsh on Pixar’s sophomore film effort, a view that my Antz comparison will surely do little to help. Nevertheless, I conclude my review with high hopes – Toy Story 2 is next.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Flik’s inventions are fun and creative. It’s amazing what you can craft out of a few twigs and leaves.
+ Hopper promised his mother on her deathbed that he wouldn’t kill Molt. That shouldn’t be funny, yet it is. I have a strange sense of humor.
+ Lots of good bug-related jokes throughout the film, but my favorite is probably “You’re making the maggots cry!”
+ The circus bugs’ “warrior” act, while contrived, is pretty funny.
+ The grasshopper shedding his own skin in fright is one of the visual highlights of the film.
+ End-credits gag reel! I was sad when Pixar stopped making those.
– This film feels too grim and violent to be for little kids. I know the same holds true for Antz, but at least Antz got slapped with a PG rating.
– I like most of the performances in the film, but Joe Ranft’s voice as Heimlich is really annoying. Ranft was a talented Pixar writer/director, but his voice work was best relegated to less-exaggerated performances.