Saturday, July 13, 2019

A Bug's Life

Note: This review contains spoilers for A Bug’s Life.

Three years after the release of Toy Story (1995), Pixar released their second animated feature, A Bug’s Life (1998), which also happened to be the first film I had ever seen in a movie theater. Though critically acclaimed at the time, it seems to have generally fallen off the radar in recent years when the works of Pixar are discussed. The same rang true for us until we caught part of a recent Disney XD airing and decided to watch the movie in full through our DVD copy. Now that we’ve seen it all the way through again after several years, it seems to have held up surprisingly well, though it’s also a little rough around the edges.

Every season, a colony of ants on Ant Island, led by the Queen (Phyllis Diller) and her daughter, Princess Atta (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), are forced to gather up food as an offering to a gang of grasshoppers led by Hopper (Kevin Spacey). One day, Flik (Dave Foley), an inventor, accidentally knocks the offering in a river with a grain harvester of his own creation. As punishment, Hopper demands twice as much food before the rainy season, leaving no time for the ants to gather food for themselves. Flik suggests finding stronger bugs to protect them and is sent away to do so by the other ants, who intended to remove him. He manages to go to the “city” and bring back a group of bugs to Ant Island, only he has mistaken a troupe of circus bugs for the promised warriors and the bugs have mistaken him for a talent agent.

Flik returns to Ant Island with a circus troupe he has mistaken for warriors;
Top L-R: Tuck and Roll (Michael McShane), Rosie (Bonnie Hunt);
Bottom L-R: Manny (Jonathan Harris), Gypsy (Madeline Kahn),
Dim (Brad Garrett), Flik (Dave Foley), Francis (Denis Leary),
Slim (David Hyde Pierce), Heimlich (Joe Ranft)

The film was inspired by Aesop’s fable The Ant and the Grasshopper, but there are also some similarities in the premise to Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954), mainly the idea of recruiting warriors to help save a village from a group of bandits. In the case of A Bug’s Life, however, the conflict doesn’t stem from the contrasting personalities of the “warriors” as much as the mutual misunderstanding between Flik and the circus bugs, as well as the ant colony’s unwillingness to accept Flik for his differences and treating him like he’s crazy for having unconventional ideas. The contrasting personalities of the circus bugs do, however, provide a good amount of levity.

The story of A Bug’s Life is told rather well, even if there are a couple convenient moments here and there, like in the third act when a grasshopper reminds another of Hopper’s true plan while one of the ants, Dot (Hayden Panettiere), is in earshot. There’s also a memorable scene where Hopper buries three grasshoppers in grain to demonstrate what would happen if the ants chose to rise up against them. However, there’s one moment that bothered me a little, even though it makes sense from the perspective of the plot. At this point, the ants have followed through on Flik’s plan to defeat the grasshoppers by constructing a fake bird out of leaves and wood, with room inside for a group of ants to pilot it. Once the ants find out that the “warriors” are actually circus bugs, however, they feel betrayed and try to abandon the plan in favor of hurriedly gathering food the satisfy the grasshoppers. The fake bird becomes necessary in the end, but I had thought in the moment that just because the bugs weren’t who they presented themselves as, that shouldn’t automatically invalidate the plan.

As with other animated films, the trials and tribulations of the behind-the-scenes development can be just as interesting as the final product, but not many have involved a pubic feud. Around the time A Bug’s Life came out, there was a public feud between Dreamworks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg and Pixar’s Steve Jobs and John Lasseter primarily regarding the close release dates and similar premises between Pixar’s A Bug’s Life and Dreamworks’ Antz. There’s a lot to unpack about it, but one of the more important aspects to bring up is that since Katzenberg had previously served as chairman of Disney’s film division before leaving to form Dreamworks SKG, some believe it’s likely that he had taken the basic concept of A Bug’s Life with him.

As for the actual animation of A Bug’s Life, it’s held up surprisingly well. Even with only Toy Story (1995) under their belt beforehand, it’s clear that Pixar had already made an improvement. Since no human characters appear, they focused their efforts on insects and plant life, impressive feats at the time that have since been improved substantially by several animation studios, including Pixar, since then. Even with similar body types, the ants and grasshoppers look distinct enough that major characters are still recognizable from certain features, however minimal. There are some liberties taken here and there, such as depicting ants with four limbs instead of six, but these changes both serve the story and help A Bug’s Life stand out from other insect-based movies.

If there’s one shortcoming to the animation, however, it’s the environments. Not that they’re animated badly, far from it, but rather they feel rather cold and barren. The world feels livelier and more fascinating when viewed from the perspective of small creatures, but when we see more of the true scale, there’s a certain emptiness to them that’s hard to ignore. I’d chalk this up to inexperience, as Toy Story had a similar, if easier to overlook, feeling at times, since Pixar has improved greatly in this area over the years.

Far shots elicit a feeling of emptiness, even with living things in frame.

As with Toy Story, Randy Newman composed the music for A Bug’s Life. There’s only one original song, “The Time of Your Life,” played over the credits, with the rest of the movie having an instrumental score. I bring up the score here because on this most recent viewing, I noticed a similar musical approach between both this film and the original Toy Story. While it still fit the tone of the movie, this similarity is likely the result of Randy Newman’s involvement in both films and the proximity of their releases.

The voice acting is done very well and is well-casted, featuring talent from the likes of Dave Foley; Julia Louis-Dreyfus; Phyllis Diller; David Hyde Pierce, best known for his role as Dr. Niles Crane on Frasier; and John Ratzenberger, who has appeared in just about every Pixar production to date. Perhaps the most notable is Kevin Spacey, who convincingly portrays Hopper as a very menacing and intimidating villain.

Kevin Spacey gives a great performance as Hopper.

In recent years, however, Kevin Spacey’s reputation pretty much tanked following nearly career-ending allegations of sexual harassment and assault on other men. His career was affected so hard, in fact, that he was written out of House of Cards and literally replaced with Christopher Plummer in Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World (2017). I should also mention that John Lasseter, who directed A Bug’s Life, had been accused of sexual misconduct at Disney Animation and Pixar in 2017 and took a six-month sabbatical, after which he had left both companies once his contract had expired. His career, however, still has life, as he was hired to head Skydance Animation, though not without controversy.

Even after 21 years, A Bug’s Life is still a good movie. Though the world can feel cold and empty at times, the story is well-executed and the approach to animating the bugs, insects and plant life is still good to look at, even after the techniques used to depict them have been long since surpassed. I would easily recommend this movie to animation fans, especially Pixar fans, as I would now consider it an overlooked gem. Because of this, however, I wouldn’t hold my breath for a sequel to happen anytime soon.

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