There are two kinds of Pixar films. The first is the type we identify the most with Pixar, so much so that we often look back on their lesser works with rose-colored glasses. These films — Up, Monsters, Inc., and WALL-E as the highlights — represent what Pixar does best: picking a good story and pairing it with a visual style and tone that match perfectly. How many other studios could make you root for a dinky little trashbot or cry over a silent title credit sequence?
The second kind, however, is the one that drowns in its own hubris. Cars (and its dreaded squeakquel that I’m convinced John Lasseter was forced to make at gunpoint), Toy Story 2, and A Bug’s Life are the most egregious examples. It’s like the developers got so lost in the technical aspect of producing a visually stimulating world that they forgot the characters inhabiting it needed to be interesting enough to populate an immersive story.
Ostensibly, the tale was inspired by Aesop’s fable of the lazy grasshopper who starves all winter while the hardworking ant becomes a poster child for gluttony. The first act borrows liberally from Seven Samaurai (!) when protag Flik accidentally destroys a harvest offering and is sent on a seemingly unachievable mission to round up a gang of warrior bugs to defend his colony from the evil grasshoppers. Once he leaves Ant Island, the film settles squarely into mediocrity with a straightforward, unsurprising plot and an uncreative ending. Of course the warriors turn out to be far less than what they first appeared and Flik must rely on his wits and bravery to win the day. Disney-approved romantic subplot? Check. The redemption of a minor baddie, a group of clumsy yet clever heroes rising to the occasion, the requisite musical number? Check, check, and check.
Ultimately the film is about community spirit. It’s about working together for the betterment of the society (SOCIALISM!). It’s important that Flik hires circus bugs, not just for the comedic opportunities but because the performers are another version of an ant colony – lose a member of the troupe and you lose a vital part of the performance. They travel as one, work as one, live as one, each making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. And they are also being exploited by a greedy outsider with no respect or regard for those he believes his inferiors. While Pixar dropped Aesop’s warnings about too much play and not enough work coming back to bite you in the ass, they added in a hefty helping of love thy fellow man except for the ones trying to boss you around and take your hard-earned reward.
Unlike Dreamworks’ ANTZ, which also came out in 1998, A Bug’s Life is very much a kid’s movie that adults can enjoy rather than an adult movie that kids won’t be bored by. Also unlike the Woody Allen movie, Pixar’s is full of visual gags and offhanded comments that pay off subtly yet handsomely. The cricket begging in the city under the trailer with a sign reading “Kid pulled off my wings” is sweet in its sadness, but Hopper spitting out “It’s a ‘Circle of Life’ kind of thing” is easily my favorite line of whole shebang.
A Bug’s Life was the second feature out of the Pixar gate, and what the groundbreaking work Toy Story did for establishing CGI as a viable subgenre, A Bug’s Life did for format proficiency. The film looks fan-frakking-tastic. There are quite a few landscape/scenery shots where you’d be hard-pressed to tell CGI from the real thing. The sequences with the real and fake bird attacks are striking in their realism. Like the intricate details of the rodent hero in Ratatouille, the feathers of the bird, the veins in the dying leaves, even the cracks of the dry riverbed are lush and gorgeously lit. As much as I hate post-production 3D conversion, I’d pay good money to see it used on a film this arresting. Until then, you’ll just have to settle for the Blu-ray.
If only they had spent as much time crafting a story as they did the grasshoppers’ exoskeletons. The only character with any real depth is Hopper, and a large part of that is due to Kevin Spacey. He plays the Big Bad with such fervor, he could easily challenge Scar for most frightening Disney villain of all time. The circus bugs are intriguing only because they’re circus bugs (though I do love me some David Hyde Pierce), the ants are just a bunch of ants, and I couldn’t tell you a thing about the main characters except the hero has the hots for the princess (though that might be just because she’s the only chick on the island that isn’t a meemaw or wee tot).
A Bug’s Life does manage to be remarkable in one character aspect. They know how to write little girls. Like, really write them. While Dot, the spare heir and the leader of the Blueberries (the ant-version of the girl scouts) doesn’t actually save the day, she is instrumental in setting up the situation so Flik can outmaneuver Hopper in the final battle. The little girl ants routinely (and literally) stand up to danger and tell it to shut up and stop bothering them. Yes, they do a lot of running and hiding and shrieking, but they’re also kids. Cut ‘em some slack. I don’t know that I’d have been bold enough at ten years old to stand up to the evil monster that has been harassing my people for generations and who is threatening to crush my mother’s skull in. But the Blueberries do.
In a world where girls have Barbies and unrealistic body expectations and are denigrated for liking comic books and not being stereotypically feminine, it makes me downright ecstatic to see a bunch of more or less androgynous-looking girl bugs kicking ass and taking names. You don’t get Princess Merida without Dot. Only time will tell if Brave winds up the next Up or the next A Bug’s Life, but you can’t go too wrong with a firecracker Scottish heroine with attitude and guts to spare.